On 1 October, Soundstreams, an international centre for new directions in music based in Toronto, presented music by Arvo Pärt, James Rolfe and Riho Esko Maimets. The latter two might be called Canadian counterparts to the established Estonian composer. If the audience came to this concert expecting familiar serene minimalist pieces such as Pärt’s Für Alina, they received a little more than they bargained for. For this was an evening aimed to create a modern spiritual experience, no more, no less.

Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt

Soundstreams first presented the music of Pärt in 1993. Already then, the composer was widely recognized for his “tintinnabuli” style, in which he strips down the music by employing the simplest materials, reminiscent of Gregorian chant and early polyphony. The first work of the night was L’abbé Agathon. This Canadian première showcased Pärt’s familiar style, but with a more dramatic texture. Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste led the Virtuoso String Orchestra with a quiet confidence.

The text, inspired by a legend from 4th-century Christian monasticism, tells the story of a hermit, Agathon, and a leper embarking on a journey together. The melody of the music mimicked their footsteps and resilient forward movement. Teng Li on viola exhibited great stage presence, perfectly executing challenging big intervallic jumps and playing with much energy. In the story, the leper repeatedly tests the abbot’s patience and virtues by interrupting their trip. The strings created these interruptions, spaces between the notes in the score, with such delicateness that one could have heard a pin drop in Koerner Hall. At the end of the story we learned that the leper was an angel. As he revealed himself, soprano Shannon Mercer shone most brightly; her voice soared high. It is worth noting that Pärt wrote this work for a mezzo-soprano, but Mercer found no difficulty performing in the range required.

Next was the world première of Open Road by James Rolfe. The text of the piece is by Walt Whitman – this is the fifth piece of Rolfe’s based on Whitman’s words. This work was quite a contrast to the first, no longer tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, being more uplifting. Unfortunately for Shannon Mercer and baritone Geoffery Sirett, the members of Choir 21 completely outshone the two soloists, despite their solid efforts. The choir was well balanced and they blended flawlessly with the orchestra. Their diction was without a doubt on point. The effect was simply otherworldly.

After the intermission, there was another world première: of Ave Maria by Riho Esko Maimets. The composer has admitted that he is influenced by Pärt and this was quite evident in this work. However, this choral composition sounded much lighter in comparison. By choosing a short, well-known sacred text and setting it to simple diatonic music, the young composer certainly appealed to many listeners. Though this piece was definitely pleasing to the ear, a more mature sound is yet to be discovered.

The last piece by Pärt was another Canadian première, Adam’s Lament. This was, by far, the most intense and at times challenging work of the night. It truly required active listening on the part of the audience, for this was not music to sit back and relax to. Adam’s Lament is based on a Russian text by the ascetic monk and poet St Silouan of Athos. In it, Pärt views the biblical Adam as a unifying symbol. The music reflects a wide range of this devotional writing and the emotions enclosed within it. The emerging sounds were serene, dramatic, and everything in between. Here, the composer continued to experiment with spaces between sections, effectively evoking sense of tension and longing for a resolution. The diction of Choir 21 continued to be most impressive, and their pronunciation of the Russian text was impeccable. The performance of this piece was sublime.

In this modern day and age, we shy away from discussing certain topics, such as religion. Arvo Pärt continues to speak about it for us in his music. What is most significant is that he does it without an agenda, without being pushy, often even without words, yet the meaning remains clear. Transcendence is possible, despite the fact that the shape it takes varies from individual to individual. Tonight, the chances are that we all experienced our own form of spiritual enlightenment, and not one walked away feeling indifferent.