When Estonian composer Arvo Pärt wrote a Passion setting in 1989, he was one of the first composers to do so since Bach. A convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Pärt uses the Latin text of St. John’s Gospel but references Russian church music. He combines Western structure with Orthodox iconography. The piece also cemented Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style of writing, where one part sounds a continuous, repeated triad (like a bell) while another weaves a diatonic melody around it. The effect is both medieval and contemporary.
“It was groundbreaking at the time,” says Geoffrey Boers, who is directing the “Passio” performance by the University of Washington Chamber Singers in the resonant, stark acoustic of Christ Episcopal Church. “That’s why I wanted to do it.”
The choir, an Evangelist quartet and two soloists (Jesus and Pilate) are accompanied by sparse instrumentation: organ, violin, cello, oboe, bassoon. The music is deeply, profoundly meditative, centering on one key per character (two for Pilate, who is conflicted) for more than an hour. It’s a pure bath of sound, something to sink into rather than simply listen to.
And for the choir, says Boers, the challenge is how to be static, to concentrate without distraction.
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But Boers isn’t just letting the music speak for itself. Inspired by more recent Passions (see sidebar) that set current tragedies such as the murder of Matthew Shepard at their center, he is creating an iconography of his own for this performance: Projected slides of the text will alternate with Russian icons, Western artworks about Christ’s Passion and contemporary photography about contemporary suffering, denial and betrayal. In the section of text where Jesus thirsts on the cross and is given vinegar, for instance, a photograph shows an African child forced to drink dirty water.
“Composers like Pärt translated the Passion story to the modern ear,” says Boers, “so we hear that text new again.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568