October 2, 2009
Since Paavo Järvi became music director in 2001, the Cincinnati Symphony has played more music by Estonian composers than any American orchestra – hardly surprising, since Järvi is himself Estonian. Arvo Pärt and Erkki-Sven Tüür are particular favorites, especially the latter, whose new Symphony No. 7, “Pietas,” a co-commission with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, opened the season Sept. 25 in Music Hall. Premiered in Frankfurt last June under Järvi, the piece was here receiving its first U.S. performance.
It was a fresh look at a composer who began his career as the leader of a progressive rock band. Yet Tüür embraces the rigors of mid-century modernism. He seeks to reconcile what he calls “intellectual” and “emotional” energy. He describes himself as a musical “architect” -- to build a house, it must have a structure – and has written a series of works called “Architectonics” (1984-92) that explore a “metalanguage” of compositional techniques.
“Pietas” is a 40-minute, through-composed work that employs chorus (courtesy of the Cincinnati May Festival) and uses texts on the theme of compassion (“pietas”) by Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Augustine, Mother Teresa, Deepak Chopra and Jimi Hendrix. It is dedicated to the Dalai Lama.
Instead of movements, it uses waves, each broken by a quote or quotes from one of the texts. The waves grow in length and intensity, anticipating and reflecting the content of the words. The drama is in the orchestra, which represents the world. The voices provide commentary.
Tüür uses both tonal and atonal harmonies to optimal emotional affect. There are several bars in each movement in which a sustained, unison pitch relieves accumulated tension (Tüür calls them “access pitches” and they play a structural role, too, in binding the work together).
The orchestral writing is ravishing. Percussion play an important role, but every section and timbre of the orchestra is exploited. Tüür likes to reproduce acoustically the sounds of electronic processing, and creates extraordinary effects using multiphonics in the winds and quarter-tone fluctuations to give pitches a sting.
The symphony opens with high woodwind trills, glockenspiel and vibraphone, underlined by a double bass drone. This mood seems quizzical, with lots of froth and layering as the basic motivic materials are introduced. It comes to a stop with a cluster of brass and a fortissimo chord, after which the chorus enters with, “We are what we think; all that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world” (Buddha). Gandhi’s “You must be the change you want to see in the world” is haloed by a gentle passage for solo violin and viola.
The second wave grows more combative and discordant, culminating in Hendrix’s “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace” and Gandhi’s “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” sung staccato for added bite.
Things get really ugly in the third wave, where low winds and brass coil down against a big tuba solo that conjures the dragon Fafner from Wagner’s “Siegfried.” Woodwinds cackle and trumpets pierce the texture like air-raid warnings. Here Tüür creates an extraordinary effect. Following “Fill your mind with compassion” (Buddha), the brasses blow through their mouthpieces like a gust of cool wind, temporarily lowering the heat of the fray. The calming effect is intensified with the faraway sound of rain stick.
The fourth wave, the longest and most complex, follows quotes from St. Augustine (“The measure of love is to love without measure”), Mother Teresa (“If you judge people, you have no time to love them”) and Deepak Chopra (“The less you open your heart to others, the more your heart suffers”). There is painful pleading by three oboes as the tension grows, further enhanced by “coiled springs” (three automobile suspension springs struck with a hammer) and tubular bells. String textures thicken, and there is a kind of ascension reminiscent of Messiaen. This is followed by a repeat of the wind/rain stick effect.
At the end the chorus and orchestra achieve unity as they join forces on “We are what we think” (Buddha), which evaporates into soft strokes of tam-tam, bowed vibraphone and a blur of flutes.
The Cincinnati audience was of two minds: those who gave it a polite reception and moved on to the more familiar parts of the program (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Alina Pogostkina) and those who seemed genuinely intrigued. I was of the latter camp.