Mendelssohn Club and Orchestra 2001 opened their seasons with a joint concert that showcased two of Philadelphia’s major regional assets and spanned a broad range of modern styles. The four pieces on the program encompassed minimalism, late 20th Century ceremonial music, challenging abstract music and the kind of impassioned treatment of major subjects that seems to attract many of today’s composers.
Henryk Gorecki is best known for his Third Symphony, which memorializes victims of World War Two. He composed his unaccompanied choral piece Totus Tuus in 1987, when Pope John Paul II made his third pilgrimage to Poland.
Like Gorecki’s Third Symphony, Totus Tuus succeeds as a piece of public art. It’s the musical equivalent of a well-wrought memorial sculpture or a well-phrased oration. The text is a Latin poem that begins Totus Tuus sum, Maria— I am wholly yours, Maria. The Mendelssohn Club’s artistic director, Alan Harler, enhanced the ceremonial effect by conducting two choruses placed in the balconies on opposite sides of Holy Trinity.
Totus Tuus opens with a majestic series of Marias, followed by a straightforward setting of the 18-word text. Gorecki then proceeds to a set of variations on the text setting, including a version that suggests high bells, and a series of well varied Marias that includes two big outbursts. He concludes with several repetitions of Mater mundi (Mother of the World) and some final quiet Marias.
Adams contemplates the Shakers
Orchestra 2001’s artistic director, James Freeman, then took the podium and led an instrumental piece with a slightly different religious connection— John Adams’s Shaker Loops (1983) for string orchestra.
Shaker Loops is a good example of Adams’s ability to build complex musical structures from the simple elements dictated by his minimalist philosophy. The first word of the title refers to Adams’s interest in the Shaker movement, but it also describes the quivering tremolo that runs through all four movements and forms its basic musical element.
Adams varies the tremolo by moving it through the different voices of the string orchestra and introducing elements like the high figure that concertmaster Igor Szwec played over the tremolo in the first movement. The four movements create moods that vary from the hymn like to a final suggestion of uninhibited dancing.
The strings suggest bells in some sections and even manage a few whistles. Adams may espouse a dogma that could produce endless monotony, but he also knows that music demands variety and novelty, and he never fails to provide it.
A Boulez disappointment
Pierre Boulez composed the program’s only disappointment. His Messagesquisse (1976) is a mini-concerto for a solo cello accompanied by a cello orchestra. Who wouldn’t look forward to hearing Orchestra 2001’s lead cellist, Lori Barnet, playing solo in front of six other cellos?
Alas, to my ear it was the kind of fragmented, unattractive music that turned people away from modern composition during much of the 20th Century. No doubt a more sophisticated ear than mine would have heard things that I missed. The fact remains: I didn’t hear them. I suspect most of the audience didn’t, either.
Between Christians and Muslims
The Estonian composer Arvo Part’s Adam’s Lament (2010) transforms a Christian religious text into a universal statement. Its subject is Adam’s grief after his expulsion from Eden, but you don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the story any more than you have to believe in Zeus and Athena to respond to The Iliad. The text is a Russian poem that elevates the subject to a universal lament over mankind’s history of violence and our inability to build a world of peace and love.
Part composed Adam’s Lament for a symbolic occasion: a lifetime achievement award ceremony during the International Istanbul Music Festival, jointly sponsored by Istanbul and Tallin, the capital of Estonia. Part turned to the story of Adam on that occasion because he wanted to reach Christians and Muslims alike.
Part gave the text an appropriately somber, restrained setting that never indulges in unnecessary musical display. The restrained beauty of his writing for string orchestra enhances the chorus without overwhelming it with showy effects. His music never draws attention to itself and always draws attention to his subject.