Dimensions of the Sacred- Arvo Pärt Composes for St. Nicholas WTC

December 6, 2021

NEW YORK – A very special event was held on the occasion of the Thyranixia (Opening of the Doors) ceremony for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the National Shrine at the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The historic church was the only house of worship destroyed as a result of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Nektarios Antoniou, Director of Culture of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, envisioned, organized, and curated a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with works by the distinguished Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, including the haunting world-premiere of O Holy Father Nicholas, commissioned by Antoniou for The Schola Cantorum choir, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and performed by the Artefact Ensemble, under the direction of Grammy-nominated choral conductor Benedict Sheehan. Soloists from Experiential Orchestra were conducted by Grammy Award-winning James Blachly. The two sold-out concerts took place in the imposing hall of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur.

From the first notes of the elegiac piece “Fratres” (1977) with Michelle Ross on the solo violin accompanied discreetly by the other strings and the characteristic (for Pärt) bells in the background it was clear what would follow, since Pärt is its composer, an evocative religious atmosphere par excellence, although this work is not necessarily religious. The piece was completed with the soloist’s great tonal range and the intense vibrato heightening and intensifying the mystical feeling.

In “Vater Unser” which followed the religious reference was clearer not only because of the title but the nature of the song that referred to the church music of the pre-classical period with the soloist of the excellent counter tenor Eric Brenner. The short work, written in 2005, was presented in 2011 at the Vatican in honor of Pope Benedict XVI.

The next choral work, with Benedict Sheehan taking the podium (he conducted only the choirs), “The Deer’s Cry” has as its core the means of creating the atmosphere of prayer that exudes the characteristic repetition of the word Christ.

The work dedicated to the history of the homonymous Russian monk of Mount Athos: “Silouan’s Song” (2015) followed, with the strings again in the same evocative idiom, with some “Bruckner-esque” we would say escalations and the intense vibrato to refer to our impression at least to the Austrian composer, who also had the relationship of music with the a-temporal and sacred and, of course, also drew inspiration from the Baroque forms he incorporated, like Pärt in his own completely personal idiom.

In the also mystical “Salve Regina” the orchestra collaborated with the choir, with the Latin of the text also referring to the ecclesiastical beginnings of this music. The work was originally written in 2001 for the Bishop of Essen for church organ and choir and was transcribed in 2011 in the version presented, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.

Originally written in 1977 for choir, “Summa” was later transcribed for a set of strings and again elegiac, sometimes on the verge of silence, referring to the origins of the composer’s characteristic idiom.

The work for Saint Nicholas began with a prayer: “In the name of the Father.” In the same musical narration with the previous choral pieces, using again the repetition of the phrase “Holy Father Nicholas,” Pärt created another mystical experience with the work escalating slowly and steadily. Along with the all-encompassing atmosphere, the work had a sense of psychic uplift and, perhaps due to its theme and the festive occasion, we would say an epic dimension. The figures of the Holy Trinity returned at the end to close the circle in Gloria, with the peak of tension being, as in many works of the Western tradition, just before the end, leaving for the finale a slow Amen on the way to silence.

Among the most famous works of the composer “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” (1976) and in prayer “Da Pacem Domine” (2004) led to the conclusion of the evening.

The mystagogy which was aided by the discreet projection, on the wall behind the band, of water that moved imperceptibly with some drops falling, while two elements of the same space contributed to the feeling of a-temporality or the mixing of the levels of time. One was the Temple of Dendur itself, more than 2,000 years old, the other was the mirror image of everything reflected in the windows of the north wall of the museum with one of the Fifth Avenue buildings, intentionally lit in the middle and at the top, looking like a candlestick.

Speakers were used for the acoustic configuration of the room, some of which were covered to look like Egyptian obelisks.

Pärt’s audience is familiar with the composer’s preference for applause only at the end of the concert and even with a time lapse from the end of the piece, since Pärt’s belief is that the silence not only in the works with the pauses but also the one that follows after their end is an integral and important part of the music and post-music, if we are allowed to say, experience. The audience respected this wish, even when it seemed, at the end of the first piece, that there was a strong need to applaud, and the applause began when at almost the right time a phone ringing gave the okay, as the audience wanted to cover the sound and show how much they adored the performers that evening.

In addition to Pärt, the writer recalls that in the 2000s at concerts under Claudio Abbado, who has expressed the same preference and turned some of his fans into initiates, especially for Mahler’s symphonies. In fact, a documentary about the great chief musician was entitled: “The Silence that Follows the Music”!

Of course, Abbado, as every artist would like, just at the right time, the warm applause, we remember his last concert as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in Vienna, when the applause lasted an entire hour! Similarly, after the premiere of his work in memory of Benjamin Britten at Carnegie Hall as narrated by the Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), when he turned and told Pärt that the audience applauded rather early, he with a big smile to his satisfaction replied: “Yes, it was early.”

The Temple of Dendur was the setting for the haunting world-premiere of O Holy Father Nicholas. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Stephanie Berger Photography

Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt certainly does not need introductions, as he is one of our most important contemporary composers, he was for many years (2011-2018) the most popular living composer (this statistic shows the number of works presented each year, and “specializing,” if we are allowed the untested term, in religious music and the mystical atmosphere, which we tried to describe above was certainly expected as the composer’s sensitivity and self-evident respect for the tradition from which the commission originated, and since the composer himself is a devoted Orthodox Christian.

Pärt, whose most important work is “Credo”, which premiered in 1968 and prompted the composer to be censored, was baptized Orthodox in 1972 when he married (his second wife) Nora.

He has composed commissions from both the Catholic Church and the Vatican, while one of his most famous works with references to the Orthodox Tradition is the Litany (1996)

Although Pärt’s music is religiously addressed, it is certainly not addressed exclusively to the faithful, which is also presumed by its popularity, since the search for the eternal and the attempt to feel the limits of existence concern everyone, certainly the philosophers. Many historical studies claim that what we used to call classical music replaced the religiosity of previous centuries in 19th century European societies. Pärt himself has in the past stated his belief that religions affect the lives of non-religious people, even unconsciously. We assume that it means that religious norms, cultural practices and aesthetic perceptions derived from religion are deeply ingrained in every dimension of human life. As for the relationship between religion and its synthetic activity, this is something he himself is not able to pinpoint, saying that he knows it exists.

Apart from the religious or, to be more precise, the religious traditions, we can distinguish other origins in Pärt’s music. It seemed to us that we heard points influenced by the “dark” quests of the modern Soviet tradition, some points reminded us of Shostakovich’s works, while, as mentioned above, another slow passage of the strings sounded very “Bruckner-eqsue.”

It is, of course, difficult to discern what is most important since the Soviet tradition itself, however, is also influenced by post-romantic and modernist Central European music, while the composer’s first works are influenced by the twelve-tone technique. Pärt wrote the first twelve-tone work in Estonia in 1960. The Soviet regime did not take kindly to the interaction of union musicians with the post-war quest for Western European music, but what brought Pärt to the forefront of censorship was not the typical of his western quests work on Benjamin Britten, but his first clearly religious work “Credo” in 1968. As stated by music theorist Yuri Kholopov: “God and Jesus were greater enemies of the Soviet government than Boulez or von Webern” (Refers to the introduction of Wolfgang Sander in the Pärt symphonies)

Through these multifaceted pursuits as well as personal synthetic and religious experiences, Pärt formed and developed his personal idiom and some special techniques such as the characteristics of “Tintinnabuli”. The “Collage über B-A-C-H” is also indicative of both the use of the homonymous technique and the deep and long-term interaction of Pärt with the figures of the Baroque era. And on the one hand the structural elements of his works may exude a Doric austerity, which has also been characterized as “sacred minimalism,” but on the other hand they are very refined, the result of a deep study of many musical traditions. Since the 1970s, the composer has increasingly turned to religious music with the choir having the first say. Characteristic for his turn is that after 1972 the emphasis is the choral works and while the composer had composed three symphonies by then, the fourth was written in 2008 and also has a choral part. This is the symphony number 4 with the political message and titled: “Los Angeles.”

The Temple of Dendur was the setting for the haunting world-premiere of O Holy Father Nicholas. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Stephanie Berger Photography

Ideal choice


The history of Arvo Pärt and his place in the international music scene make him ideal for this particular music commission. Mainly for this choice but also for the coherence of the program that was artistically envisioned and edited, the director of the culture division of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Nektarios Antoniou, should be praised. Antoniou, who also serves as the Director of Culture for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan and as the lead chanter, is not an “ordinary” chanter, having studied at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music as a fellow, and thus observing with a discerning eye the musical experience of New York and beyond. He has performed and curated dozens of concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, including the opening concert for the exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven as soloist with the Tapestry Ensemble, and as lead chanter in the concert with the Chiara Quartet for the Philip Glass world premiere. The choice of Pärt, apart from the spirituality of his work, which in our humble opinion should have been and obviously was the criterion for such a commission, is certainly, whether it was intentional or not, an outgoing move (something we would dare say we are not used to) for the Greek Orthodox Church, towards the other Christian communities and to the arts and institutions that represent them in New York. The event was also under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and the Greece in USA initiative https://greeceinusa.com/.

As Fr. Alex Karloutsos pointed out to us the day after the concert on the sidelines of the Thyranixia ceremony at Saint Nicholas, this church, which he used to attend as a child, in addition to its importance and symbolism, should be a monument of the Greek Diaspora, which is expected to receive visitors beyond the Greek and the Orthodox community.

And the presentation of Pärt’s work inside the church will contribute decisively to something like this, while it would be a good idea for this concert to be hosted in Greece, not only in concert halls but also in churches.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was certainly invited to the concert, but unfortunately was not able to attend due to his busy schedule, but also due to his health, as he had to be hospitalized twice on this trip and postponed his return to Constantinople, where he finally returned late on Sunday, November 7th. It is worth noting that in 2013, during his official visit to Estonia, the Ecumenical Patriarch “addressed the introduction of His Holiness Tallinn to Mr. Arvo (Arethan) Pärt, renowned composer and faithful Archon Proto-maestro” of the Great Church of Christ!

The concert was attended by Metropolitan Museum of Art Directors Max Hollein and Alex Poots (The Shed), Carnegie Hall Director of Artistic Programming Ab Sengupta, award-winning composer and Morgan Library and Museum Manuscript Editor Robinson McClellan, Michael Pärt (son of the composer), members of the Arvo Pärt Center in Estonia, the Estonian Consul in New York and its Ambassador to the United Nations (with 40 distinguished diplomats and members of the United Nations Security Council, His Eminence Metropolitan Savas (Zembillas) of Pittsburgh, Stratos Safioleas, and many other representatives of New York arts organizations and hundreds of audience members at the two sold out concerts that drew attendees from all over the world.

The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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