Arvo Pärt and Michel Legrand Anguish and other 21st-century sentiment

Tom Purdomby Tom Purdom – Broad Street Review

February 27, 2014
My February meanderings exposed me to two 21st-century pieces that deserve some attention: Arvo Pärt’s 2010 Adam’s Lament, performed by the Mendelssohn Club, and a new harp concerto by French composer Michel Legrand, premiered by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia with the composer’s wife, Catherine Michel, in the solo role. They were both highly emotional works, even though they focused on very different sets of emotions.

I think it’s significant that Pärt and Legrand have both written a lot of movie music. Pärt is an Estonian who supported himself writing movie scores while he was out of favor with the Soviet authorities; Legrand is noted for his work on films, both in France (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Hollywood (The Thomas Crown Affair). Movie music is emotional music, used to intensify emotional impact. There are times, watching movies, when I realize I’m reacting to the music, not to the acting or the storytelling.

All art provokes an emotional reaction. But some pieces, like these two, grip us because they express emotions. Other music, like Bach’s instrumental works, evoke emotions: They stir us through our responses to musical qualities like liveliness and complexity.

Adam’s Lament confronts a grim subject — humankind’s addiction to violence and tribalism. Its text describes Adam’s anguish at his separation from God and his grief when his son Cain slew Abel, when he realized that “People and nations will descend from me….and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another.”

It’s an emotional text, and Pärt gives it an emotional musical treatment. Adam’s Lament is a dark, somber piece for most of its length, with two moments when the chorus and orchestra create a tremendous, writhing anguish.

Legrand’s harp concerto is less obviously emotional, but it’s actually a series of emotional interludes. Adam’s Lament bewails the biggest disaster in our makeup. The emotions that run through Legrand’s concerto are softer and more modest but just as important — the kind of balanced, temperate feelings that govern our outlook when we’re reasonably content with our day-to-day life, whatever may be happening in the larger world. It is, in fact, just the kind of concerto you might write if you were composing a piece for your wife.

The Chamber Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Club both paired their 21st-century entries with works by Haydn. At the Chamber Orchestra concert, Dirk Brossé led a performance of Haydn’s 104th Symphony that captured all of its 18th-century charm and Beethovenish thunder. The Mendelssohn Club ended their program with Haydn’s Mass in Time of War.

Haydn wrote his mass during the period after the French Revolution when Napoleon was just beginning his bloody career. In spite of its title, it’s basically music you respond to because of its musical qualities — an inventive, lively setting of the mass that could have been performed at any time, war or no war. The big exception is a powerful moment near the end, when Haydn counterpoints the Dona Nobis Pacem with terrifying thumps on the timpani. The brutality of cannon fire answers the choir’s prayer for peace.

Haydn quickly recovers and ends the mass with a bright, festive vision of peace. It was Haydn, not Pärt or Legrand, who gave his audience a Hollywood ending.