December 15, 2021
Arvo Pärt’s 1997 work, Kanon Pokajanen sets to music the Eastern Orthodox Church’s
Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a heavy text, continually pleading for God’s
mercy amid reflections on the failings of humanity, brimming with fear and uncertainty. The
timing couldn’t coincide better with the multiple levels of instability the pandemic has wrought
That said, Cantori New York’s November 2021 performance of the 90-minute a
cappella work held a heightened sense of progress. Initially scheduled for March 2020, the
chorus’ resilience in remounting the work redefined a piece longing for forgiveness as one that
achieved a long-awaited redemption.
Music Director Mark Shapiro summed up the piece’s character before beginning –
Kanon Pokajanen is an immersion in sound, avoiding a sense of plot to create a more purely
spiritual experience. Pärt accomplishes this with a menu of musical textures which rotate in
complete service to the text.
Divided into eight odes with two intermezzos and a concluding
prayer, the listener comes to expect full blasts of chords, swelling harmonies guided by a
cyclical melody, syllabic chord arpeggiations, chanting over drones, and sparser textures where
harmony and melody alternate the forefront through hocketing (trading pitches), and
tintinnabuli, Pärt’s iconic method of harmonizing melodies in a ringing fashion.
Every movement contains subsections from this menu, which are dwelled upon at
length, and never repeated in exactly the same way, giving the listener no choice but to go
along for the ride in an ebb and flow of surprise and familiarity. This sets the stage for Pärt to
fleetingly alter the harmonic mode, splashing in new colors like cold water to the face, or
Shapiro and co. held space at St. Francis Xavier with utter command and clarity,
initiating each movement with a tuning fork. When a phone released a similar tone, Shapiro
calmy retuned. His conducting marks no beats, but manages musical coordinations in fluid
forward motion, dancing the textures.
The 45 singers moved effortlessly amid each other to
reposition momentary soloists and even showcase a bit of choreography in which droning
basses briefly turned their backs. Their integration to the space spread to the surrounding City –
as a prayer for a passing ambulance; as tough love to a barking dog.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews-Guzman