At the season's final classical concert at the Hollywood Bowl last month, Yo-Yo Ma was the marvelous soloist in John Tavener's 48-minute The Protecting Veil, with Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; at the end, the crowd of just under 10,000 held its silence for a full minute as the last quiet sounds mingled with the cool evening air – an atmosphere describable as hypnotic. The next night, at home, I allowed myself to be hypnotized again at even greater length by the new ECM recording of Arvo Part's Kanon Pokajanen. The two works sang the same language: Tavener's, with a solo cello weaving its incantatory, sinuous, nonstop melody in and out of the string orchestra's enveloping haze; Part's, with its unaccompanied chorus spinning immensely long vocal lines of penitence and exaltation, expanding from time to time into harmonies of almost palpable lushness, then falling back into an ages-old-sounding single strand like a small light in a huge, dark room.
This is what the phrase-spinners have dubbed “holy minimalism,” and the tag is not far off the mark. It has nothing to do with the archetypal minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, their throbbing, repetitive patterns oozing almost imperceptibly from one shape to the next. I hear this music as “minimal” only in the sense that so much emotional power can grow out of such modest resources. The breakthrough work, in terms of surging public acclaim, was Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony; it rode to the charts a few years ago via the proselytizing efforts of crossover DJs here and abroad. (The recording that put it there – David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony on Nonesuch, with Dawn Upshaw's angelic singing – differed markedly from two previous versions, and also from the performance Gorecki himself conducted last year at USC.)
The Protecting Veil, its title derived from a millennium-old Eastern Orthodox legend about the Mother of God casting her veil to protect the Greeks from invading Saracens, is too eloquent on its own to be thought of as a ripoff of the Gorecki. Let's just say that it rises effortlessly from the older work. Tavener's hand – here, and in much of his considerable output – is guided by his religious involvement. I resisted the Veil on first hearings, but no longer; despite its prevailingly thin textures it demands full attention. (It seems to be getting it; Yo-Yo Ma's new Sony Classical recording, again with Zinman/Baltimore, is already the third.) Whoever in the Bowl management decided to accompany the performance with shifting colored lights in the shell surrounding the performance – climaxing in a barfworthy hot magenta at the music's ecstatic climax – should be brought up on charges of heresy.
Kanon Pokajanen, Part's 83-minute ecstasy, is a setting of a Greek/Russian Orthodox morning service, for unaccompanied choir; its text, teeming with accents of repentance and atonement, even at times of abject groveling, might play well these days at the White House. If you know the great works in the Part legacy – the earlier Fratres, whose harmonic pulsations come at you like the summoning of distant bells; Passio, recounting the mysteries of the Passion through a pall of darkness; the glorious, brief, sun-drenched Magnificat – you should have mastered by now the task of relaxing in the face of his music's daunting demands. Kanon Pokajanen's time-scale is daunting, but its sounds are gorgeous. The ongoing chanted melodic line is the unifying force; that line, at times unadorned and austere, is then bathed at other times in the blinding light of rich, lush harmonies of indescribable beauty. Now and then the basses in the chorus hold a single low note at what seems like excruciating length, an effect familiar in some of the Russian liturgical pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, or in my distant memories of the singing of the old Don Cossack Choir.
Some of the profound impact of the work, as heard on this new two-disc set, comes from the performance itself and the way it has been recorded. The singers are Tonu Kaljuste's Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who sang at the Irvine Barclay Theater last year in a concert I will not soon forget. The recording was made at the Niguliste Church in Tallinn, which looks from photographs to be a fairly small, unadorned structure; the singing is enveloped in an aura of resonance that, once again, suggests distant bells. (The work was actually composed to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the huge cathedral at Cologne, where it would probably sound even more resonant but not nearly as well-defined.) I cannot, in honesty, propose this music as the latest adjunct to the easy-listening shelf. For the believers, however – in whose ranks I gladly include myself – both the music and its realization on these discs make for an extraordinary experience.
The indoor concert season began not in one of our major masonry edifices, but in the intimate, welcoming space of Pasadena's Neighborhood Church, where Vicki Ray inaugurated the fifth season of Piano Spheres with music-making no less hypnotic than any of the above. The house was full, as it deserved to be; this series – five yearly concerts by five pianists, a consortium devoted to innovation and adventure in music mostly but not entirely new – has become a resource valuable and enchanting.
The program consisted of Morton Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, 90 minutes nonstop of vintage, exquisite music oozing – slowly, and on the edge of silence – around the periphery of some nameless vastness. For this performance the video artist Clay Chaplin devised a real-time visual counterpoint, projected images and abstractions of Ray's hands in action, moving in and out of focus, with words of John Cage from his 1959 Lecture on Something, woven through the screen images. Once again, as with the Tavener piece at the Bowl, the participatory silence around the performance became a part of it; I've seldom known 90 minutes to go by so quickly.
The venerable Leonard Stein, whose brainchild this series was, performs at the next Piano Spheres concert on November 24, followed by Gloria Cheng-Cochran, Mark Robson and Susan Svrcek, who ends her program (on May 18, 1999) with Beethoven's Opus 110 Sonata – that work, too, being music as deserving of the epithets “innovative” and “adventurous” as anything you'll hear all season.