by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, MARCH 24, 2022
BERLIN — Music occupies a very special place during Lent. In Germany concerts, held mainly in churches, traditionally offer performances of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions in particular. In Glasgow, Scotland, musicians join with other artists during the 40-day period in a festival organized in collaboration with the Catholic Church. Known as LentFest, this year it included a concert by international pianist Alessandra Pompili, known also for her dedication to the music of Alan Hovhaness. In her piano recital, titled “Celebrate Hope,” on March 13, the Armenian composer’s work played a central role.
LentFest was inaugurated in 2006 on the initiative of then Archbishop Mario Conti, as a festival of art events that take place from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Held in Glasgow, it has become the most comprehensive festival of its type in Great Britain. In a short interview published in Catholic Life in 2014, its artistic director, Stephen Callaghan, explained that the aim of LentFest was to “encourage a stronger co-operation between artists and the Church,” which has a history of supporting the arts. Through the initiative they hope also to encourage younger artists, “to present a vision that can be a source of reflection also for non-Catholics … to portray our faith and identity in a credible manner.” LentFest is an expression of a movement resisting aggressive secularism, and seeking to strengthen identity through the arts in various forms: theatre, music and the visual arts. Now it has become an important cultural event in Scotland, and received endorsement from Pontifical Council for Culture in 2012.
Music from Past and Present
As Pompili described it, the rationale for her program was pretty simple: to present examples from three major periods (baroque/romantic/contemporary), thus offering musical variety. She started with a piece by Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto 3 N. 7, in an unusual transcription for keyboard. “The Vivaldi transcriptions we usually hear of are those by J. S. Bach, who transcribed for keyboard a few instrumental concertos of baroque composers,” she explained. “But the one I presented is not by Bach; rather, it is part of the Anne Dawson’s manuscript music book, which is kept in Manchester Public Library. Who was Anne Dawson? We do not know anything of this Englishwoman who lived in the XVIII century. So, this transcription of a well-known Vivaldi violin concerto is an unknown gem and unique in its genre (it is not one of those transcribed by Bach).”
She followed with two Venetian Gondellieder by Felix Mendelssohn, and online audiences could follow the music with visual images of gondolas moving slowly along the canals of Venice.
Alan Hovhaness occupied center stage in the program. Pompili is known as an advocate of his music, and has presented some of his works as premieres. She was the featured artist at an event commemorating Hovhaness’s 110th anniversary on April 17, 2021, which was organized by the Armenian Cultural Foundation, Amaras Art Alliance and Friends of Armenian Culture Society. (See (https://mirrorspectator.com/2021/04/22/alan-hovhaness-armenian-composer-universal-spirit/)
Here for the recital at LentFest she performed his Sonata Cougar Mountain, Opus 39. She gave the European premiere of the composition in 2009 and it has remained a staple in her repertoire because, she said, “it is utterly mesmerizing.” The composition unfolds in several movements, Adagio, Mountain Lament, Mountain Slumber Song and Cougar Mountain Dance, again accompanied visually by magnificent landscapes, woodlands and waterfalls. This little-known composition, the pianist explained, was written in 1985 when Hovhaness was living in Seattle. “Cougar Mountain is in the vicinity of the city,” she said, “and must have been a favorite of the composer — Hovhaness loved mountains, as he thought they were the locations where man could more easily approach God.” Compositionally, she considers Cougar Mountain, to be strictly speaking, more a suite than a sonata: “What I find fascinating is the underlying anthropomorphism: the mountain has a lament, sings a lullaby and finally dances.”
The concert concluded with two short pieces, by Domenico Zipoli, Gavotte in d minor, and Giovanni Battista Pescetti, Allegretto in c major. Zipoli became the organist at the Church del Gesù in Rome, the central church of the Jesuits. Although as a talented composer he could have had a stellar career in Rome, he decided to become a Jesuit and go as a missionary in Argentina where he taught music in the Jesuit mission until his death.
This was Pompili’s fourth time participating in LentFest. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this year’s festival has to take place online. But, fortunately, one can enjoy it after the fact. See http://www.agap.org.uk/lentfest.html