A divided afternoon of Pärt and Haydn

stearns_sig_2013_150x150By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic
POSTED: February 26, 2014
The maverick mystic Arvo Pärt occupies an increasingly unassailable but strangely hermetic place in the classical music world. Though the relative simplicity of Pärt’s Salve Regina and Adam’s Lament might seem to go with anything, the Mendelssohn Club basically gave two different concerts Sunday at Church of the Holy Trinity, with Pärt in the first half and Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli in the second.

The surprise in this collaboration with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia under Alan Harler is that Haydn suffered by comparison, if only because Pärt is so much more earnest. Much of Pärt’s appeal lies not in his minimalist simplicity but in his ability to create intimate experiences in public forums – particularly attractive to young people used to experiencing music in the privacy of their electronic devices.

Even with the large chorus of the Mendelssohn Club, the Pärt pieces communicated the music’s disarmingly candid texts with deeply insinuating music that partitions choral and orchestral forces into distilled, hauntingly repetitive ideas. Sudden entries of harmony and contrapuntal complexity that might be barely noticed in Mahler become so arresting amid Pärt’s barren musical landscapes as to create a significant disturbance withinthe listener.

Salve Regina was like a prayer from the wasteland, with pale orchestral sonorities inhabiting the gray areas between traditional major and minor keys, with covertly unorthodox choral harmonies (not easy to get right in the entrances) and gently rocking but dignified instrumental ostinatos. Salve Regina has been recorded by ECM and Harmonia Mundi; this 2011 version of the 2001 piece was heard here in its U.S. premiere.

Adam’s Lament, from 2010 and making its second Mendelssohn Club appearance, depicts Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (in texts from the Russian Orthodox monk St. Silouan) as a torturous amputation, leaving humanity stranded without a clear humanitarian compass.

The piece sustained itself beautifully, the chorus illuminating the specific character of each section with surprisingly clear enunciation of the Slavonic text. Most eloquent was the appropriate ambiguity of the end, when the love and humility in the text were sung with a musical grimness, suggesting no clear route to salvation.

Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli ends with similar questioning, the concluding “Agnus Dei” sung above an eerie, warlike timpani that, amid the composer’s ceaseless musical invention, seems like one of the few moments when he was truly in dialogue with the text. The performance was just fine with occasionally uncertain tempos and a good but slightly unruly vocal quartet – Barbara Berry, Roy Hage, Jennifer Beattie, and Brandon Cedel.