Chamber Singers of Iowa City to perform Arvo Pärt’s ‘Passio’

Iowa Chamber Singers
The Chamber Singers of Iowa City are an all-volunteer choral ensemble. — Photo by Jason Smith

The Chamber Singers of Iowa City

First Presbyterian Church at 3 p.m. — Arvo Pärt’s Passio
Clinton Street Social Club at 5 p.m. — Northern Lights fundraiser

Contemporary composer Arvo Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935. When you listen to his music performed, you can hear echoes of the story that the piano he played as a young child was damaged in the middle register, necessitating his exploration of the upper and lower extremes of the instrument. His music is volatile, always chasing something that can’t quite be captured, but at the same time exquisitely beautiful. When Pärt was just five years old, Russia invaded Estonia for the first time. Much of his early creative life was spent in the tension between devotion and secularism, between music as bourgeois indulgence and music as respite from horror.

In 1980, Pärt, with his wife and children, was granted an exit visa and left what had again become part of the Soviet Union. They lived in Vienna and Berlin before finally returning to his home in Tallinn, Estonia 20 years later. The country was now a different place than the restrictive environment in which Pärt was raised. Still, the beautiful vistas of his youth remained, continuing to inform his composing.

Now, in 2016, Pärt has become the most performed living composer in the world, as reported by the website, which collects a variety of classical music statistics. He earned that accolade in 2015 for the fifth year in a row, according to their records. In 2014, a recording of his Adam’s Lament won a Grammy for Choral Performance, which was not the only honor heaped upon him and his compositions. He holds no less than five honorary doctorates from universities all across the world, from Australia to New York. In 2011, he was made a knight in the French Légion d’Honneur.

His appeal is broad and unflagging. Last September, the composer marked his 80th birthday without a breath of a pause in his musical life. In October of last year, the Günter Atteln documentary The Lost Paradise was released, chronicling a stage production of Adam’s Passion helmed by the inimitable Robert Wilson. For the documentary, Pärt allowed a film crew to follow him for an entire year, skewering his accidental reputation as a recluse.

Pärt’s music is steeped in faith and devotion, and renowned for its echoing loveliness. Despite setting primarily sacred texts, the aching tones speak to both the religious and the more secular-minded. The composer has spanned decades of experimentation in classical styles, exploring Schoenberg’s serialism in his early work, adding collage techniques and ultimately developing his own “tintinnabuli” style, inspired by bells. His work is a challenge and a thrill to perform, especially for vocalists.

The Chamber Singers of Iowa City, an all-volunteer choral ensemble about to enter their 45th year of making music in our community, are taking on this challenging and fascinating composer through his Passio, a composition published in 1989 but begun back in 1980, right as the composer was leaving his home to live abroad. It is a setting of chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John, and is among his most well-known, and most-recorded, works. Director David Puderbaugh notes that, “because churches have entered the Lenten season, this is an appropriate time of year to perform it.”

This is the third time the Chamber Singers have engaged with the composer’s oeuvre—the first was their 2011 performance of his Magnificat; the second, his Berliner Messe. “Each time we have ‘upped the ante,’ ” says Puderbaugh, “performing a larger and more complex piece.” Of the decision to come back to Pärt now, he says: “His style—radiant and contemplative—is very different than that of any other composer. It’s a great challenge for the choir and provides our listeners with something quite different than our usual offerings.”

Their Passio will be performed on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $17 for adults, $14 for seniors and free for students. Immediately following, at 5 p.m., the ensemble will adjourn to the Clinton Street Social Club, whose owner, Brian Vogel, is himself a Pärt fan. A benefit for the Chamber Singers will be held there, with tickets costing $25.

The fundraiser is dubbed Northern Lights: A Fundraising Event Celebrating Winter and the Radiant Music of Arvo Pärt. In addition to an intimate musical performance, there will be a curated discussion of the Passio. A selection of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres selected to evoke Pärt’s native Estonia will be available. The Chamber Singers will also be selling letterpress broadsides as part of the fundraiser, created by designer Kristen A. Hartman with an original translation by Elizabeth Marilla of a Clemens Brentano poem, “Es Sang vor Langen Jahren,” the Pärt setting of which will be performed by ensemble members during the event.

Seth Wenger, one of the fundraiser soloists, connects deeply to this music. “Pärt’s work has a sonic resonance in a room, and inside of me,” he says, “that I don’t feel with many other composers. His intricate and deliberate simplification of music, to the point which it begins to blossom from its own purity, is a grand metaphor.” The northern forests of Pärt’s Estonia and our own frigid winter make for a good pairing. The Chamber Singers of Iowa City have chosen the perfect season to bring us the peace and warmth of Pärt’s music.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 193.

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