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Thu Feb 24, 2000

Estonian choir members prove great cultural ambassadors

The Georgia Straight

by Douglas Hughes

Having fought throughout the 20th century to gain independence from hordes of foreign invaders, the small Baltic nation of Estonia has more recently struggled with equal force to establish itself as one of the most musically prodigious realms in Europe. In the last two or three decades it has turned out many remarkable conductors, instrumental soloists, vocalists, and composers whose works have won worldwide acceptance.

Estonia’s artistic achievements could not have been better demonstrated than they were in this phenomenal concert by its philharmonic chamber choir and chamber orchestra, both of which enliven the cultural life of Tallinn, its bustling capital city. Under the fine hand of conductor Tönu Kaljuste, the ensemble performed three motets by Johann Sebastian Bach with profound attention to detail, flawless rhythmic precision, and the kind of intense emotional commitment that revealed their composer to be more of a romantic than the starchy musical mathematician many people take him for. In the final motet – “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing unto the Lord a new song”) – rivers of glorious polyphonic sound spiraled ever upward to reach what I can only call an apotheosis. That may seem an exaggeration. But take my word for it: it is not.

Turning to music by Estonian composers, the ensemble began with Cyrillus Kreek’s setting of Psalm 1, “Omnis on inimene” (“Blessed is the man”). A pleasant enough a cappella work, it rang with an almost Elgarian Victorianism, which, I suppose, could be expected from a man who was born in 1889, and who served his country as one of its most revered teachers until his death in 1962.

Estonian modernism came to the fore, however, in a short but remarkable piece by the renowned Arvo Pärt. Excerpted from a larger work called Kanon Pokajanen (Canon of Repentance), “Kondakian & Ikos” was performed a cappella by the choir’s male singers. Sombre, slow, and fluid in tonality, it owes its origin, according to Part, to Slavonic manuscripts from the seventh and eighth centuries that celebrate the appearance of Christ on Earth.

Next came a gripping performance of a setting of the Requiem Mass by Erkki-Sven Tüür. At 41, Tüür is one of Estonia’s younger composers. As his age indicates, he grew into musical maturity in the latter half of the 20th century, when he was influenced not only by classical formalism but also by rock, jazz, and odds and ends of pop culture. Pulling all these strings together, he came up with a stunning, sometimes biting, sometimes lyrical setting of the Mass in which key signatures, tonalities, and rhythmic values shift all over the place but still maintain a sense of organization and balance. Strings slide, dip, shimmer, and often shriek; sounds both ominous and gentle escape from beneath the open lid of a prepared piano; crescendos give way to sudden and unexpected diminuendos (and vice versa); and voices reverberate with both gloom and ardour as the text demands.

At its conclusion, I could only think that if Giuseppe Verdi brought the 19th century to close with a setting of the Mass appropriate to the age, Tüür closed the 20th century in much the same way.

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