The Mendelssohn Club breaks the mental fatigue of war through music

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Composer Arvo Pärt's work will be performed by the Mendelsson Club of Philadelphia on Sunday
Composer Arvo Pärt’s work will be performed by the Mendelsson Club of Philadelphia on Sunday | Photo courtesy of MCP

Separated by two centuries, Joseph Haydn and Arvo Pärt would seem to have very little in common. The Austrian Haydn was one of the most prominent figures of the Classical period, hailed as the “Father of the Symphony”; the Estonian Pärt is among the most renowned and influential voices of later 20th and early 21st century music, a master of minimalism that draws upon the deceptive simplicity of early music.

But one unfortunate connection between these two very different composers – and, sadly, the rest of humanity – is that both lived during and responded to times of war. On Sunday, the Mendelsson Club of Philadelphia, the city’s 140-member chorus, will present a program entitled “The Sound of Spirit,” pairing landmark works by both composers that respond to the wars of their times. The chorus will be joined by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for the concert at Rittenhouse Square’s Church of the Holy Trinity.

“Especially since 9/11, Americans have a mental fatigue about war,” says Alan Harler, artistic and musical director of the Mendelssohn Club. “You may not even be aware of it, but if you bring that to a performance of this music it somehow colors one’s perception. It may not be on the cognitive surface; nobody’s going to hear this music because they’re tired of fighting these pointless wars and this music is going to somehow help. But I think one does connect to the music more because that’s such a universal feeling.”

“Adam’s Lament,” which the chorus first presented in a successful concert in the fall of 2012, is Pärt’s starkly beautiful setting of the poetic lamentations of St. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox monk. “It’s a very dramatic text,” Harler says, “so it translates into a very dramatic piece, maybe moreso than people who are used to Pärt might expect. It’s a spiritually contemplative piece, mostly very sustained, slow, minimalistic music but with very beautiful melodies.”

Beautiful melodies may be the only common thread between Pärt’s composition and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War,” the tenth of the composer’s fourteen settings of the Latin Mass. It’s a purely liturgical text, but set to a militaristic style reflecting Napoleon’s incessant attacks on the Austrians.

“Pärt is responding to the text with word-painting, while Haydn superimposes a warlike feeling onto the mass,” Harler says. “Haydn was going to write the music that he wrote regardless of the text, which doesn’t have anything to do with war or fighting. But he gets his point across, certainly in the last movement when you really can sense that Napoleon is right over the hill ready to march in.”

The program will also include the North American premieres of two other Pärt works, Estonian Lullaby and Salve Regina. The scope of these works, Harler says, perfectly encapsulates the wide-ranging mission of the 140-year-old chorus. “Our mission is performing masterworks as well as new choral music, so that hopefully the one enhances the other. This program features new 21st-century music and a masterwork in the Haydn, and I think they’re both stronger and heard in a more interesting light together.”

The Sound of Spirit: Pärt/Haydn will be performed by the Mendelsson Club at Church of the Holy Trinity, 1904 Walnut St. on Rittenhouse Square, Sunday Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. Tickets and info can be found here.