With its ringing, rolling syllables, “tintinnabulation” is one of the most melodious of all words. Fittingly, it’s the word Arvo Pärt uses to describe the music he has made since 1976, when he emerged from five years of silence. In earlier times, Pärt composed serial music that fit with twentieth-century trends, but then this Estonian reinvented himself. He turned toward older forms, including Gregorian chant, and rediscovered the beauty of simplicity. Ever since, Pärt’s glowing, serene music has been both minimalist and mystical, medieval and modern. “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” he once explained, comparing the simple triads at the core of his music to the ringing of bells — tintinnabulation. Pärt, who turns seventy-five in September, is often described as a sort of monk. He says his beard is the only monk-like thing about him, but his compositions do sound like revelations achieved through prayer.
In a 1999 interview, Pärt said his process is like looking through an electron microscope. He zooms in on music’s molecules, magnifying the complicated surfaces until he sees the building blocks beneath it all. “What you can see now,” Pärt said, “is a cool geometry: very particular and very clear.” — Robert Loerzel
In many ways Michael Tilson Thomas has assumed the mantle of Leonard Bernstein in American musical life, even if he could never replicate that iconic polymath’s cultural impact. Tilson Thomas — a sixty-five-year-old California native, though he seems half that age and has an East Coast lineage — has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, raising that ensemble’s status so much that the old Big Five orchestral standing should be revised to the Big Six. Tilson Thomas and his group have been at the forefront of the twenty-first century’s post-Bernstein Mahler boom, winning fistfuls of Grammys for their cycle, produced in-house. Like Bernstein, Tilson Thomas tirelessly promotes such American pioneers as Ives, Gershwin and Copland while devoting himself to a younger generation of performers — founding both the New World and YouTube symphonies. And no one after Bernstein has produced such quality edutainment programs as Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score series for PBS (also on DVD, CD and download), which elucidates masterworks with a manner as engaging as it is erudite. — B.B.
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