Pärty at Koerner Hall: The Music of Arvo Pärt

Upon my arrival at Koerner Hall I was immediately entranced by the aesthetics of the concert hall. Not that I am completely out of place in the more refined venues of Toronto, I just happen to usually find myself in one of this great city’s dingy dive bars when I am out to see a concert. There was something about the intimacy of the space combined with the beautiful woodwork of the venue that alluded to the kind of passion that would be performed for you on stage. Proximity to the performance, which was limited in some of the obstructed view/”nose-bleed” sections at Roy Thompson Hall, in combination with the subtle yet elegant architecture, which seems to be lacking in many of the dive bars of Toronto, made this the perfect venue for the minimalist works that were scheduled for the night.

The Programme called for a four-piece presentation, opening and closing with the works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. For those of you who aren’t too familiar with the works of Mr. Pärt, he is a composer of both Classical and Sacred music. Most well known for working in a minimalist style, Pärt likes to isolate the individual sounds of instrument and voice giving a unique power to smaller orchestras. He is also heavily inspired by Gregorian Chants, allowing the vocals of the soloists and choirs to evenly go toe-to-toe with the string orchestra.

Geoffrey Sirett and Shannon Mercer perform Open Road by James Rolfe_The Music of Arvo Part_Soundstreams Oct 1 2013

The lights dimmed as the first movement began, leaving a small oval of dimly lit bows swaying in unison across a sea of glossy spruce, while a solo vocalist (Shannon Mercer, Soprano) stood in front and loosed a haunting melody (“L’Abbe Agathon”) across the stage. In an instant, I was removed from the masses. Her enchanting voice carried into the crowd like the cursed sailors were carried into the rocks by the melodies of the Sirens. I was impressed and my fears of this night becoming “too churchy”  vanquished. The way the strings and vocalists worked together was beautiful. Each lilt in her voice was stitched perfectly with the swings of the orchestra. I could hardly tell where string began and voice ended. The harmony was ethereal and seemed to float around the room like a spectre visible only to our ears.

The second piece was “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman and edited by Toronto Composer James Rolfe. The energy that I felt during this piece was electric. The violins started off with great fervor and were accompanied by a full choir, and both a Soprano (Shannon Mercer) and a Baritone (Geoffery Sirett), which made this performance very powerful. It began lighthearted but strong, very different from the first song. The orchestra and the choir began to volley the song back and forth which seemed to make the room rock and sway to the music as it would take sudden dips and twists from vocal to instrumental and back. I couldn’t help conjure images of a large vessel out on the open sea. The way the violins would playfully give chase to the cellos, to the bass and back through the choir seemed to mimic the ebb and flow of choppy waters. To the large sweeping crescendos that would build with so much force that they would come crashing down like waves around the room. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and I wasn’t alone on that one.

It was now time for intermission, and that meant a beer. I enjoyed mingling with the crowd sharing our thoughts and opinions about the show with each other. The energy felt in the first half of this performance was not at all what I had expected considering the heavy influences of Gregorian chant by the composer. I’m no expert on Gregorian chants, but I do believe they are supposed to be a little dreary, dark even. This was not the case with the crowd, however. A lot of energy had been instilled into everyone, and the anticipation ran high for the second half. Perhaps the stout I was having during intermission would be as dark as the night got.

The penultimate performance was “Ave Maria”  by Riho Esko Maimets, composer and Canadian, no less. This performance was executed like clockwork. It contained a very traditional feel that went perfectly with that beer. The way the music carried was very fluid yet precise, like a parent reading their child a book for the hundredth time, their every word carefully recited, with moments of silence perfectly timed to allow for the turning of the page. It gripped you, and left you waiting to hear what came next.

The final piece “Adam’s Lament”  once again by Arvo Pärt was exactly as the title would lead you to believe: depressing. The piece itself is based around Adam from the “Adam and Eve” story about apples. You see, Adam feels bad about what his actions and the performance could not have done a better job translating this emotion. It is heavy and dark (much like the Guinness I decided to have during intermission). I didn’t look at the title of the piece before I went in to hear it. I like to see if the way I describe how the music made me feel matches with the title/theme originally intended by the composer after I listen to it for the first time. Let me tell you something: this did the trick. The orchestra carried me on a dark journey. Like the more livelier performances before this seemed to lift me up out of my seat, this piece opened a door deep underneath the stage, and took me on a ghastly trip where no light could be seen, just the haunting sounds of the choir tugging on my heart strings.

That evening at Koerner Hall was an enchanting one. The Soundstreams concert series allows us to not only have access to culture and diversity, but to experience it at one of the best venues in the city: Koerner Hall. Soundstreams has worked hard to bring this music to people of all ages. With tickets as low as $20, anyone can have an experience that is worth so much more.

About W.S. Rivera

Roberto Rivera is established, in the sense that he has both his feet planted firmly on the ground with his head suspended 40 feet in the air above his body.