A recent gala hosted at the Estonian House on 34th Street in New York launched a project that promises to bring one of the most famed living Estonians in the world—composer Arvo Pärt—to Manhattan for an unprecedented concert-lecture series. The series will specifically explore the spiritual roots of Pärt’s music and will center on a concert at Carnegie Hall on May 31, 2014, with the composer and his wife, Nora, in attendance. The landmark performance will feature the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Tõnu Kaljuste.
The gala, held on December 13th, glittered with personalities who hold Pärt as a National Treasure, including host Sten Schwede, Estonian consul general, and chair H.E. Marina Kaljurand, Estonian ambassador to the U.S. They were there to support The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, a unique collaboration between the composer and a small theological graduate school nestled in the Crestwood suburb of Yonkers, NY.
Since 2011 faculty from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Pärt have been collaborating on a project that seeks to define the nexus between the composer’s spiritual ground and his creative artistry, particularly his use of Eastern Christian spirituality. Both Pärt and the seminary share a common faith and spiritual heritage in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.
Schwede noted that Arvo Pärt “has become Estonia’s global cultural ambassador. It didn’t take us long to accept a collaboration offer presented by St. Vladimir’s Seminary to our Consulate General here and our Embassy in Washington. The Arvo Pärt Project’s goals are very ambitious, but in our opinion totally attainable.”
Introducing the project was seminary faculty member Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, who explained, “Tonight, we are celebrating a small miracle: Arvo Pärt, the world’s most amazing living composer, is relying on the seminary to express the untold story of his works. Because although books, documentaries, and liner notes mention his music’s ‘spirituality,’ none have managed to speak to the depths of its roots in Orthodox Christian theology, prayer life, and ethos.” St. Vladimir’s Seminary, devoted to the study of this Eastern faith tradition and its explanation to Western audiences, is uniquely positioned to make these connections.
Bouteneff, himself a musician who teaches systematic theology at St. Vladimir’s, has been a long-time admirer of Pärt, ever since the two met at a monastery retreat in 1990 in Great Britain. Shortly after their chance meeting, Bouteneff became enthralled by a performance of Pärt’s Passio at Oxford, and since that time has sought to explore the religious depths of the composer’s works.
Dr. Nicholas Reeves, who teaches music at the seminary, acts as project manager in the endeavor with Bouteneff. During the evening, he spoke of the profound effects of Pärt’s music on general audiences, saying, “It doesn’t summon analysis so much as it creates a space for self-reflection…Pärt’s compositions gather a reverent public who, in all the diversity of their backgrounds, share a common desire to fill their hurried lives with stillness instead of distraction.” As if to illustrate his point, Reeves introduced the musicians chosen for the festivities: pianist Lembit Beecher and cellist Karen Ouzounian, who performed two exquisite Pärt works, Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel, to a rapt audience.
Representatives of the seminary’s board of trustees, faculty, staff, and student body joined music professionals and members of the Estonian American community in the celebratory night, including members of the Estonian diplomatic corps and board members of the Estonian American National Council. Three executive staff from the Henry Luce Foundation, including President Michael Gilligan, attended as well; the foundation had awarded the project an important planning grant in May 2012.
In his toast to the project, seminary Chancellor and CEO The Very Rev. Dr. Chad Hatfield recalled for those gathered that the seminary’s former and beloved dean, The Very Rev. Dr. Alexander Schmemann, had been born in Estonia. He further noted that the seminary would be awarding Pärt an honorary doctoral degree when he visits New York in 2014.