In a setting as remote and spare as its namesake’s music, the Arvo Pärt Centre opened on October 13, 2018, in Laulasmaa, Estonia, with the composer in attendance. A trio of concerts were performed by Anne Akiko Meyers, the Ensemble Vox Clamantis, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra—all conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste.
In a recital with pianist Akira Eguchi, Meyers played Glass, Mozart, Corigliano, Bach, and Pärt’s two most frequently recorded works (more than 50 of each), his triumphs of tintinnabulism: Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel.
Meyers also performed in Jaan Tootsen and Jaak Kilmi’s documentary Who Is Arvo Pärt? (during which she was briefly upstaged by a toddler wearing an “Arvo Pärt Makes Me Happy” T-shirt).
In an interview with Meyers after she had returned to the United States, she told me that she had performed in Tallinn, and that walking through its medieval center reminded her of an ancient culture similar to Japan’s. This was her first visit to Laulasmaa, a seaside village surrounded by forests, 30 minutes west of Tallinn on the Gulf of Finland.
Built to help celebrate 100 years of the country’s independence, the architecturally striking Centre, designed by a Spanish studio, houses the composer’s personal archive and includes a 150-seat auditorium, library, and study areas. Its pentagonal grid of spaces and courtyards, designed to echo the rhythms of Pärt’s music “without disturbing any existing pine trees,” is dominated by a pentagonal observation tower offering views toward the sea.
What were your first impressions of the Centre?
Just being invited by Mr. Pärt was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I found out quickly that his soul is there at the Centre. It stands in a beautiful peninsula with tall trees and clean air—pure and clear like his music. I had flown directly from California and suddenly we were all there and . . . wow. It felt so surreal—the whole experience was so out of this world.
What was it like working with the composer?
I already had played Tabula Rasa in the ’90s and was in love with his music for a very long time before I worked with him three years ago, when I recorded the Passacaglia in Leipzig with Kristjan Järvi and the NDR Leipzig Orchestra. It was a fascinating time, to be able to work so intimately with him and to hear from his mouth how these pieces should go, and flow. Going to his home and playing for audiences that just worshipped him . . . . It was like performing for God.
How much time did you have to rehearse the program?
Not much, but I had recorded Spiegel and Passacaglia a couple of times and Fratres just recently for the second time with piano, so when I arrived in Estonia I rehearsed the day of the performances. It was very complicated to rehearse and perform on the same day, but the conductor has worked very closely with the composer, and of course the musicians knew his music very well.
You seem to have taken to Estonian culture.
I’ve found that their philosophy is very similar. For one thing, Estonians read a very impressive number of books per capita—they’re bookworms and they love learning.
You’ve described the Centre’s auditorium as an ‘exquisite jewel box of a concert hall.’ Does it reflect the composer’s aesthetic?
Definitely. When I performed with the orchestra I could hear every little sound in the hall, and you could tell that people were listening from the bottom of their hearts and souls. It reminded me of his tintinnabuli, the way each note became a little bell itself. It was intimate, but not claustrophobic at all.
It had a spacing and a resonance that was so glorious, and worked so beautifully with his kind of sparse compositional style. It seemed to resonate with the spirituality of the sounds we made. The spatial feeling was very similar to elements in Japanese culture.
What is the secret to playing his music?
It is very challenging. I have to make each note breathe so that it sings and speaks with range and nuance of colors and in his very slow style. His music may be very still but it also has great fluidity—if you can find the colors within. When I exhale the note speaks—it’s a matter of breathing a lot when performing his music, and being very calm at the same time. His music does play with your mind; it’s very meditative, so just breathe and stay calm.
Where do you find the warmth in his music?
His warmth comes from his heart. He’s a very gentle, sweet person, with a very distinct way of wanting to hear his music performed. It particularly resonated with me his feeling that the space in between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. Also, nature is so important to him—at the age of 83 he is still taking long walks, riding his bicycle, and, I’ve heard, driving his car himself all the time.
How has your experience with the spaces between Pärt’s notes impacted your performances of classical composers?
I opened my season this year with the Beethoven Violin Concerto and kept thinking how fascinating it would be to have cadenzas by Arvo Pärt. Both composers share a feeling of expansiveness and depth of soul. And in Pärt’s case perhaps there is also a special quietude.