Saturday, August 28, 2010

Listening to Wales: Arvo Pärt and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival

Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, turns seventy-five this September, and he’ll be celebrating part of his birthday week in Wales.  From September 5th through 11th, his glorious music will form the centerpiece of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and Pärt will be in attendance September 8th and 9th.

In his book, The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes:  “for a period of eight years, Pärt composed little, immersing himself in a study of medieval and Renaissance polyphony.”  When he re-emerged, his music had utterly changed. 

Pärt defected to the west in 1980.  Ross writes:
A lonely exile might have awaited him; the German music establishment opposed minimalism in any form.  But when the German label ECM began issuing recordings of Pärt’s music in the eighties, they sold copies into the millions, unheard-of quantities for new music.
Ross comments that Pärt’s music offered “repose in a technologically oversaturated culture.  For some, it “filled a more desperate need; a nurse in a hospital ward in New York regularly played Tabula Rasa for young men who were dying of AIDS, and in their last days they asked to hear it again and again.”

Welsh composer John Metcalf founded the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and has directed it since its inception in 1969.  Metcalf recast the Festival in 1992 to showcase living composers.  Since then, he’s introduced the Festival’s audience to many composers and performers who, at the time, were little known, including Radu Lupu and Philip Glass.

The Festival’s choice of music can on occasion be more troublesome for critics than for the Festival’s audience.  Metcalf recalls with amusement one critic's response at a non-Festival performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum:
The critic was about to implode.  He was just purple in the face; he was apoplectic with annoyance.  In the interval he said to me, “The trouble with this music is that it’s so easy.”  I said, “Well, you seem to be finding it rather difficult.”
What Metcalf advocates, and surely his Festival is an exemplar, is that “the world really ought to be open to people.”  “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to shed light on things.  We’re trying to understand things.”

The concert venues are chosen with care to offer listeners release from the confines of a single seat in a traditional concert hall night after night.  This year, the venues include Fonmon and St. Donats castles and the medieval priory in Ewenny.

Metcalf is flying over an Estonian chef for an opening night “supper including traditional Estonian cuisine,” information he relates with particular delight.  (If I were to try and guess of what the cuisine might consist, I’d come up with potatoes, black bread, sauerkraut, and pork, but that may not be the case.  Just take a look at this restaurant in Tallinn.)
Poet Philip Gross, winner of the 2009 TS Eliot prize for his book The Water Table, will be on hand to offer readings on opening night, interspersed with works of music by Russian and Estonian composers.  Here is an excerpt from the title poem of his collection Mappa Mundi:
In the land of mutual rivers,
it is all a conversation: one flows uphill, one flows down.
Each ends in a bottomless lake which feeds the other
and the boatmen who sail up, down, round and round
never age, growing half a day older, half a day younger
every time... as long as they never step on land.
And, of course, there is the music.  One of the many intriguing offerings is a program to be performed by the Amsterdam Cello Octet.  Metcalf describes the sound of the cello when unencumbered by other instruments:

 On one evening, music for the harp will take center stage; another will feature the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir singing Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen.  In yet another concert, the choir will be joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to perform works that include two world premieres:  one a piece by Pärt, the other a piano concerto by UK-based American composer Arlene Sierra

The appealing three-woman vocal ensemble “juice” will sing “Laid Bare: Love Songs, a set of newly-commissioned pieces including works by Gavin Bryars, Anna Meredith, Damien Harron and avant-soul improviser E Laine.”  The concert will take place in Acapela, harpist Catrin Finch’s new studio and concert hall.  The closing concert, in "the candlelit church of Ewenny’s Norman priory," will feature, among other works, Pärt’s exquisite Stabat Mater

Two of the concerts will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but nothing can possibly compare with hearing—and seeing—these concerts live.  While, alas, we haven’t the means to make a second trip to Wales just now, we’re hoping some of our friends across the pond will find their way to the Festival and report back.  We, meanwhile, have pulled out all our Pärt CDs and are doing our best to live vicariously in the world of those beautiful sounds.

To John Metcalf we say, may your Festival be a resounding success, and many happy returns of the day to the astonishing Arvo Pärt!

If you would like to attend, the ticket prices are modest and can be purchased here.

Postscript:  For a review of the Festival's Amsterdam Cello Octet and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performances of  Pärt works, click here.  Among other things, the review makes clear what the Festival's choice of venue brings to the performances.  The Festival continues through September 11.

Listen to Pärt's lovely Spiegel im Spiegel:

And here is a wonderful clip of Iceland’s inimitable Björk
conducting an interview with Arvo Pärt:

-The title picture is taken from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival brochure.
-The picture of John Metcalf is taken from his website.
-The picture of St. Donats Castle is
Church and castle - St Donat's (Mick Lobb) / CC BY-SA 2.0
-The picture of juice is taken from juice's website.
-The quotations describing the opening night supper, "Laid Bare:  Love Songs," and the Ewenny Priory are taken from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival brochure.


  1. Now there's a Festival worth visiting!
    Like Von said, a feast, a feast for the senses, all of them
    I've come to Part relatively late but his music is food for my soul.

  2. "...repose from a technologically saturated culture" - a great comment on music like Spiegel Im Spiegel, so lovely.

  3. What a wonderful post with each paragraph disclosing a musical gem.
    What I like best:
    Prepared piano
    8 cellos
    Music videos
    Almost as good as being at the festival!

  4. Thank you all for writing!

    Von: You get my vote for best one-word comment!

    Friko: Pärt's music is balm indeed--and love your comment of the Festival "a feast for all the senses." Indeed.

    C-A: I love that quote from Ross--his book is full of beautiful phrases like that.

    Cybersr: Love your list!

    Too bad we can't all charter a plane and get over there, eh? In the meantime, Metcalf writes the Festival is "amazingly popular this year." And well it should be, eh?

  5. The Festival has received a wonderful review in the Guardian which, among other things, makes clear what the Festival's choice of venue brings to the performances. For a link to the review, see the postscript at the end of this post.


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