Blog / Meeting Arvo Pärt

Meeting Arvo Pärt

Posted on 1 Feb 2019 by Yarmila Alfonzetti

Yarmila Alfonzetti
Photo credit Anna Kucera


It feels like a lifetime ago now, but once upon a time I was the luckiest person in the world – I had the great fortune of being the Head of Classical Music at Sydney Opera House (SOH). I worked with magnificent people who encouraged me to create and program things which were new and different and, most importantly, involved a level of risk-taking and immersion.


That concept of immersion and passion was not only meant for the audience, it was meant for me also. So over a number of years I was indulged in championing the World Orchestras Series, the Utzon Music Series, and then, amongst other things, the Composers Series. This was a new venture for SOH and incredibly exciting for me…I love new music in all its forms and some of the most musically interesting years of my life were spent on the Board of Ensemble Offspring (little did I know then that my life now would be full of something a million times more challenging…opera)! I get bored easily so this approach suited me perfectly, and I was spurred on by the encouraging words of Richard Evans (now MD of the ACO), Rachel Healy (now Co-Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival) and Jonathan Bielski (now AD of the Auckland Festival). The pedigree arts glut at SOH at that time was fertile ground for exploration.


The Composers Series was a set of programs which allowed a deep dive into the music of iconic 21st Century composers, and in particular I am most proud of the presentations focussed on Steve Reich, John Cage and Arvo Pärt. Steve Reich came and spent two weeks in Sydney, and I’ll never forget his face when a seagull flew down and plucked a beak full of pasta right off his fork at the Opera Bar! I had some brilliant conversations with him that I treasure, and he wasn’t fazed at all when, over dinner at my house, I asked if he would give my eldest daughter a composition lesson (well, she was in Year 12 at the time doing extension music)! Obviously I had missed my chance to get to know John Cage in person, however spending time with Bang on a Can, most of whose players had known him personally, was as close as I could get to the real thing, and Musicircus in the Western Foyers of SOH was a day I’ll never forget.


Producing a week of concerts focussing on the music of Arvo Pärt was finally an opportunity for me to venture abroad, and an adventure it was! At that time I wasn’t very well-travelled, and going to Tallinn felt like a huge leap. The planning for the concerts in Sydney had shifted over time from the original intention where Arvo Pärt was to come to Australia. I had spent many a long month negotiating arrangements with his publishers for a significant visit, but after some time it became obvious that the long trip might be too risky. He didn’t like travelling, and for elderly people in Estonia you can imagine how remote Australia would seem. There was nothing I could do but go to him instead. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and numerous other artists were already booked, the repertoire already selected, and dates held across venues at SOH. The final missing piece of the puzzle was Arvo Pärt himself.


I have since been to Tallinn a number of times, most recently last year to visit the Choir again (I’ll tell you how much I adore these musicians later). But on this first visit, I had no idea what to expect and I don’t think I had Google Maps back then (it was 2012/2013…and I think we were still using Blackberrys)! I am sure I went to other places on that particular European visit, but all I can remember is Tallinn.


Firstly, all my luggage was lost. I’ll never forget this because I learnt a valuable lesson that day ladies – always travel with a change of underwear and some toiletries in your hand luggage! I was young(er) then and significantly more carefree; I was literally travelling in a tracksuit with nothing more than a novel under my arm. Aarrgh!! As some of you know, Tallinn is not a town with a DJs or a late-night Target, nor can you find a Priceline or a Woollies. I survived the first 48-hours by sleeping in a towel, buying some smalls from a real underwear shop (scratchy lace and all), and getting my hair done in the hotel!


Tallinn is a truly beautiful city on a very human scale; you can pop there for a day or two from Helsinki or Stockholm and feel like you can get around pretty much everywhere. Of course it’s always better in these sorts of places to be visiting a local, or to know a local. I was lucky to be doing just that.


I had made good friends with Esper Linnamagi, General Manager of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and he had very generously offered to help in my arrangements with Arvo. Esper is an arts management genius, and I credit him with the continuous success of this Choir over dozens of years. Esper helped me find a film crew, liaise with Arvo and Nora (Arvo’s wife) directly, talk to Tõnu Kaljuste (neighbour to Arvo and long-time conductor of the Choir) about questions and repertoire. At the time of course all the arrangements were stressful and there was much to do, but on reflection I see that the time I spent with Arvo at his house was incredibly special. I wish I had paused to absorb it all the more when I was there.


Firstly, Arvo and Nora are incredibly polite and there were lots of treats and tea and pretty crockery. Arvo spent a lot of time pretending he didn’t speak English, but when he wanted to interject, he did so, and I knew he was listening to everything. He vehemently objected to my suggestion that we arrange one of his works for harp (I really wanted to include my dear friend Marshall McGuire in the main concert!!)…he made it absolutely clear to me that unless he approves of the instrumentation, and he makes the arrangement, it is forbidden (this reminded me of Steve Reich actually – it seems that there are composers who passionately protect the performances of their music so much so that they would rather it never be performed than performed in a way they do not like).


We talked a lot about life and children and love and all the things I like to know about people, and you won’t be surprised to know that Arvo and Nora are just like every other pair of grandparents. They are just like us with their worries about the garden and what to have for dinner. Life’s funny like that.


Despite my conversations with Arvo, the real joy of that first visit to Tallinn was the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. I finally realised what a full-time professional choir could be, and I felt privileged that this Choir was my awakening. I listened to some days of rehearsals and had lots of conversations, and without doubt these people are some of the most impressive musicians I have ever known. Their repertoire list is astronomical, their language and aural ability astounding, and their joyous recreation of some of the best music on the planet is nothing short of first-class. I love this ensemble and everything they do. I think there is something like a palpable intertwining of patriotic, religious and spiritual co-conspiration between Arvo and the Choir; they have needed each other for so long, each individual parts of a choral music ecology which requires them both. I think they will live on forever through each other.


I’m not sure why so many people love the music of Arvo Pärt (but I can guess), and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. I don’t listen to his music much, but when I do I am reminded of what I consider to be the gem within all of his creations – a sense of pace. The momentum which matches breath, sighs, stretches and allows one to connect as a physical body with the movement in the music.


The final concert of the Arvo Pärt Composers Series at SOH all those years ago was, as you can imagine, a sell-out success. Over 2,000 people came to hear a vast selection of works including Tabula Rasa (my personal favourite Part work performed by Kirsty Hilton and Veronqiue Serret), and the gorgeous Helena Rathbone performed Spigel im Spigel wearing her wedding dress – a perfect representation of the Part tintinnabuli style which is essentially about two voices, as one, in love.