Everyone must do their own Pärt

The other night I was at a concert for our local symphony orchestra. The main attraction was a 12-year-old piano prodigy named Umi. She’s 12, and she has already achieved the coveted “one word name” status. I’m PRETTY SURE Madonna and Prince were a little older than that before they adopted theirs, but I’m not sure.

In any case, she was amazing and hearing her bang out Chopin’s 1st concerto with the orchestra drove everybody mad and then something happened that I’ve never seen at a classical music concert before. Umi gave us an encore. I really don’t know why this doesn’t happen more. I mean, I remember one time singing with the orchestra and we finished a major work, I can’t even remember which one, but for the sake of this blog post, let’s say it was Verdi’s Requiem. The crowd jumped to their feet and as we were all basking in the applause, I wanted, dared in my mind, actually, the conductor to shout out, “The Dies Irae, once again!” and we’d sing the damn thing as an encore. I wanted that so badly that night, but realized it just isn’t done at classical concerts, just like how you’re not supposed to clap between movements (something that still bugs me) and in fact I almost clapped after the first movement of Umi’s piece because I thought it was over. (I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course the concerto wouldn’t be just one movement, but it kind of felt over, you know?) So in the second half, partway through Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, I discretely reached for the program on my wife’s lap. She thought I was going in for a “hand hold” and there was a bit of bumping and shuffling in the dark until I could wrest myself away from her hand and come up with the program in triumph. I had to check how many movements were in the damn symphony so that I knew when to clap. So anyway: back to Umi’s encore. We were all deserved on our feet and she was bowing and then a couple of kids came out with a couple of bouquets and it was all going according to plan when Umi suddenly stuck the flowers on the top of the piano and sat down and treated us all to a short solo piece. It felt spontaneous even if it wasn’t, and I was impressed and amazed.

But despite the admiration I had for Umi and her Chopin and the orchestra’s able handling of Mozart’s Jupiter, it was the first piece of the evening that stayed with me.

It was by this guy Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer of whom I had not heard. (Not surprising. You could fill concert halls with what I don’t know about classical and symphonic music, but I’m learning.) It was called Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten. When the conductor took to the podium, I panicked a little and whispered to my wife, “where is the horn section? where are the woodwinds???” But I needn’t have worried. They weren’t stuck in traffic. This piece is only strings. Or more accurately, it is only strings and a solitary chime. The piece is very meditative and reminded me a bit of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, or maybe waves crashing on a beach. I loved it, and just settled in to enjoy it. The piece begins with the chime, barely audible, and builds to this wonderful climax that leaves the strings and chime reverbing long after the instruments have stopped playing, Britten style!

I should mention at this point that when we took to our seats, we noticed that there were three chatty older ladies sitting behind us who looked like trouble. Before the concert started one of them was yammering away, funnily enough, about a friend of theirs who talks too much. I was worried that they’d be the “ignorant asshole” types who would talk through the whole concert, but it was fine. As soon as the maestro took to the podium they tapered off. Although, a minute into the piece I heard one of them whisper to the other. “This music is going to put me to sleep!” and then, as good her word, a minute later, I could hear loud breathing which modulated into full-on snoring a few breaths later. My wife was bold enough to turn around and glare at them, and the snoring seemed to stop. The whole piece is only 6 minutes long, so it seemed a bit absurd that we would have all this drama at the get go, but you can never predict a live audience, can you? At the intermission, my wife told me that when she turned around during the Pärt piece, all  three of them were sleeping on each other’s shoulders but it was only the middle one who was actually snoring. Ah! The concert experience.

When we got home, we chatted a bit with my Mom (who was babysitting our daughter) and I told her about this unexpectedly beautiful piece at the top of the program by an unknown composer which worked it’s magic on the three ladies behind us. My Mom told us that she had the CBC on Wednesday morning at work and this incredibly beautiful piece of music came on. It was so beautiful, she said, that she had to stop working and just listen to it until it was done. She didn’t know the composer, but she caught the name of the piece: (Mirror on a Mirror). I did a quick youtube search for that piece, and guess what? (I’m sure you’ve already figured out where this is going). Yes! The composer was also Arvo Pärt! Sometimes in life I don’t think there are any coincidences.

If you’re interested to know what these pieces sound like, I’m sticking a couple of youtube links at the end of this post, but PLEASE DON’T LISTEN TO THEM IF YOU ARE OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE.

What do you think of them?

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