Music of a poignant beauty almost beyond the reach of mere words, achieved with
means so simple that they, too, disappear in the telling: that was the essence
of a most extraordinary concert on Wednesday night at Saint Basil’s Church in
downtown Los Angeles. The performers were Paul Hillier’s newly formed ensemble
called Theater of Voices; the music, all of it, was by the Estonian-born Arvo
Part, including the first American performance of his “Berlin Mass,” composed
in and for that city last May.
Part (pronounced “pairt”) has achieved a following through a small handful of
recordings, many of them performed by his fellow Estonian Neeme Jarvi, or by
Hillier. They cover a broad spectrum; a recording of his three symphonies, by
Jarvi on the B-I-S label, shows the work of an ardent atonalist and a skilled
handler of great gobs of orchestral violence. More recently, however, Part’s
music has taken a turn toward the austere, with performing forces cut down to
small instrumental or vocal groups. His “Passio,” a setting of the story of
the Crucifixion, recorded by Hillier with his previous vocal group, the
Hilliard Ensemble, is an hour of enthralling, quiet, slow-moving music of
utmost emotional impact, seemingly hovering on the edge of silence.
The music on Wednesday’s concert, including several short religious works, two
brief organ solos, and the 25-minute Mass, was of like quality. Included among
the short works were three vocal pieces — in English, Latin and ancient
Slavonic — so transparent in texture that the slightest change of harmony
seemed cataclysmic. The Mass, of all the works, seemed to waver enchantingly
between very old and very new styles. The simple word settings, mostly
syllable-by-syllable, note-by-note, had some of the quality of old church
hymns. But there were moments — the radiant, bell-like harmonies at the start
of the “Gloria” linger in the memory — when all sense of time disappeared.
This was music at its most elemental, stripped down to its central expressive
An ensemble of four singers — the extraordinary soprano Pat Forbes, alto Mary
Nichols, tenor Paul Agnew, baritone Hillier with Christopher Bowers-Broadbent
on the small, clear St. Basils organ — was all Hillier needed to recreate the
wonder of this strangely austere yet impassioned music.
The church itself, with its Franco Assetto bas-reliefs of the Stations of the
Cross that also, like the music, seem to bestride very old and very new art,
was the perfect setting. Credit MaryAnn Bonino, once again, for her special
skill, in these “Chamber Music in Historic Sites” concerts, to effect the
ideal merging of sight and sound.