The Temple of Dendur gallery in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s is a space for grand statements – not just in the history of the space but in its acoustics as well. The large glass and marble room houses the ruins of an Egyptian temple from 10BC, a large gate and entryway emblazoned with images of the sky god Horus and circling vultures. Beyond the stone columns, an expanse of sky is visible through a wall of windows, cutting diagonally through the room and directing the gaze northward then toward the heavens. The gallery isn’t reverberant enough to invite the use of the acoustics as an instrument, but it’s not dry enough to allow for delicacy in sonic exchange. It’s a room that neither wants nor warms to minutiae or filigree­ – performances there are few and well chosen. The late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass, performed there in 2015 by the ACME Ensemble and Roomful of Teeth, and the doom metal band Om’s 2013 appearance are fond memories at the temple, as now is a portrait concert of and premiere by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Public domain | Rosemania, Wikicommons

The evening opened with one of Pärt’s best known themes, Fratres, featuring Experiential Orchestra soloist Michelle Ross. The quick violin lines were crystalline, the slow orchestral refrains sublime, but it was the bass drum that began to define the reverberant space. Countertenor Eric S Brenner then sang Pärt’s 2005 setting of the Lord’s Prayer (in German), expanding the sound field. Where Ross’ violin seemed to take root and sprout through the room, the purity of Brenner’s voice was without locus, somehow both sitting within the strings and blanketing them. 

Four more short pieces preceded the premiere, during which time the program became a suite. Through The Deer’s Cry, Silouan’s Song, Salve Regina and Summa, the admonishment against applause took hold. The audience sat rapt, even with the alternating at the podium between the orchestra’s music director, James Blachly, and Benedict Sheehan, artistic director of the Artefact Ensemble chorus (neither of whom addressed the room). During that span, the hushed (albeit tastefully amplified) instruments slowly gained ground.

With O Holy Father Nicholas, co-commissioned by Nektarios Antoniou, Director of Culture at the National Cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for The Schola Cantorum, and by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the room finally filled and time, at last, stopped. This new choral work marks the rededication of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the National Shrine in lower Manhattan, destroyed in the September 11 attacks and rebuilt within the new World Trade Center structure. It began with a prayer, nearly in plainchant, building to a grander crescendo with stunning grace, then receding again into a simple soprano melody with a suspended drone in the bass voices. It was quite beautiful. The music was, as it was meant to be, timeless, no more modern than Bach, the conventions of the centuries mere ornamentation. Outside the wall of windows, dark clouds moved mysteriously across a blue and sunny sky.

The room was brought back to the ground with the somber chimes and the hovering, descending and repeating string motifs of Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, perhaps one of Pärt’s most beautiful works, eventually centering and anchoring before the expansive stillness of Da Pacem Domine. A setting of a Latin prayer for peace, it closed – so gently – a matinee meditating on hope and loss. 

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