The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is touring Ireland with the masterpiece Arvo Pärt wrote for it. Michael Dervan meets the choir’s founding conductor in Tallinn.

Suddenly, it’s all happening for Arvo Pärt in Ireland. He’s to be the focus of next year’s RTÉ Living Music Festival. Just before that, Louth Contemporary Music Society will present the premiere of his specially commissioned The Deer’s Cry, a first setting of St Patrick by the Estonian composer. The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s latest tour includes one of his best-known works, the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. But the most unusual venture is undoubtedly the upcoming four-concert tour by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

For many years now, Pärt has been concentrating on choral music, and this
multiple Grammy-nominated choir is one of the groups most closely associated with his work. Audiences in Galway and Drogheda will be treated to a programme that places Pärt in the wider context of Estonian music. Listeners in Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, and in Dublin get the opportunity to hear the remarkable Kanon Pokajanen which the composer delivered for the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral in 1998.

This work has more than once been acclaimed as his masterpiece, though with his own estimate of the duration ranging from 90 to 110 minutes (without an interval) the demands it makes on performers and listeners alike are clearly bound to limit the number of performances it receives.

It’s one of those pieces that seems to stand outside of time, like the startling madrigals of Gesualdo, the awe-inspiring Requiem of Berlioz, the at once logical and logic-defying Grosse Fuge of Beethoven, or the strangely ruminative explorations of the late piano pieces of Liszt.

It is an austere and monumental setting of the Orthodox Church’s canon of
repentance, a text credited to the eighth-century St Andrew of Crete.

The task of composition took the composer two years. “I tried to use language as a point of departure,” he has said. “I wanted the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line. Somewhat to my surprise, the resulting music is entirely immersed in the particular character of Church Slavonic, a language used exclusively in ecclesiastical texts.”

The piece was written for and premiered by the voices of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and their founding conductor, Tönu Kaljuste. The group originated as the amateur choir Ellerhein, which was created by Kaljuste’s father, and the transition from amateur to professional status took place in 1981, while Estonia was still a part of the Soviet Union. The choir’s success at an international competition in Hungary attracted the attention of the Soviet Estonian government, which then took the decision to set up the choir as a professional group.

IT MIGHT SEEM obvious, now, that an Estonian professional choir would gravitate towards the music of Estonia‘s best-known composer, Arvo Pärt. But it wasn’t quite that simple. After all, when Pärt left Estonia in 1980 he was not yet the major international figure he is today. And the very fact of his having left the country made the business of performing his music more difficult.

I caught up with Tönu Kaljuste at a rehearsal in Tallinn, when he explained to me: “I can’t say that I started to do Pärt’s music when I was a student. Then I didn’t perform it at all. I didn’t find the key to it. But, later, it happened with his Berliner Messe and Te Deum, then I found some idea how to find my own interpretation. And when he heard our Te Deum recording broadcast on Estonian Radio, straight away he wanted to do more recordings with us.”

In the years when Pärt suffered from official disapproval, says Kaljuste, it wasn’t completely impossible to programme his works. “I was quite young, so for us it was like a little sport to do some. There was always a conflict with the directors of the Philharmonic.

“I was brought there several times to be told my programmes were awful, they’re the wrong pieces. But it wasn’t like I was going to be shot. It was a criticism of my bad taste.”

Estonia, of course, was not as cut off from the rest of the world as some other parts of the Soviet Union. Life on the geographic fringes seems to have been a bit freer than at the centre. In music, also, there was the proximity to Poland and its famous Warsaw Autumn Festival. And there was also the shared linguistic connection with Finland, whose television channels were easily received across the narrow Gulf of Finland and were avidly viewed by Estonians in Tallinn and the north of the country.

Kaljuste says that as a conductor finding his feet in the 1970s he was greatly influenced by the work of conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, and the sounds he sought to encourage from his choir were affected by the ideals of the period performance movement.

In relation to Kanon Pokajanen, he points out that the composer’s conception didn’t begin on the large scale of the finished work. “It’s all connected to Pärt’s relationship with the Orthodox Church. He was deeply inside this Orthodox Church service, and he wrote different individual pieces from the Kanon first. It wasn’t planned from the start as one piece. He wrote one section, then nother, and then it became a full evening piece. It was very important for him, very personal. It’s not concert music. And it’s not church music, in the sense that it’s not music for a church service. It’s something that needs a special kind of communication, somewhere in the middle.” There might seem to be a paradox that Estonia‘s best-known composer is so closely associated with religious texts and spiritual concerns, given that Estonia is a country where only 28 per cent of the population have declared themselves Christians on their census forms.

“It’s difficult to make globalisations,” says Kaljuste, “to say it’s not a religious country. What is a religious country? I think that our religion is not what you might understand as religion, it’s mostly connected with the religion of nature. We have our own way in Estonia, and if you want to understand that way, you must listen a little bit to Cyrillus Kreek’s music, and you will see how the religious music comes to Estonia. When the Lutheran chorales came here, they started a mixture between chorales and folk music. It’s changed a lot of the music language.” On the other hand, it seems entirely apt that an Estonian
composer like Pärt should have written so much choral music. Estonia is famous for its song festivals. The first was held in 1869, and in the 20th century choruses of more than 20,000 performed to audiences numbering into six figures. Tallinn‘s Song Festival Grounds with their huge stage make a most impressive sight.

A NUMBER OF times in our conversation Kaljuste draws attention to the fact that Estonian culture is so young, and that the population base is so small, a million and a half, a fraction of the size of many big cities – he cites St Petersburg as an example. He suggests also that Estonians prize individuality rather more than other societies, and he also returns again and again to the religious or quasi-religious (though that’s not a term that he uses) importance of nature for Estonians.

It’s six years now since he broke his formal links with the choir and passed the conductorship over to Paul Hillier, who has now in turn moved on and will be succeeded by Daniel Reuss in 2008.

Given its size and reputation, the choir was probably well placed to survive the upheavals of the transition from Soviet rule to independence, a changeover that saw the much larger, 80-member professional radio chorus disbanded in the 1990s.

The choir has always toured, but pre-independence that touring included concerts in the Soviet Union, which could take them anywhere from the major centres to Turkmenistan and Siberia. To younger members of the choir, says managing director Anneli Unt, that sounds incredibly exotic, as the choir’s travel is now oriented towards the West rather than towards the East.

In the newly independent Estonia of the early 1990s, she says, “everybody’s attention was paid to the economy, to work and jobs, and how to become richer. The general interest in culture decreased enormously.” And at the same time the new freedoms brought a much greater range of competition. And the small population doesn’t make things easy, either.

“It’s easier to find a thousand people in Berlin than a hundred here, probably,” she suggests.

The choir’s domestic and international profiles are quite different. On the international concert circuit the choir is known for its advocacy of Estonian music, especially the music of Arvo Pärt. At home, its repertoire is much more varied. The first sounds I heard from the rehearsal room on the edge of the old city in Tallinn were from Beethoven’s Fidelio, which was being prepared for Nargen Opera in the festival Tönu Kaljuste has established on an island near Tallinn. And the choir seeks out partners to explore the world of baroque and classical choral music with orchestra. Abroad it tends to be seen as highly specialised. At home it’s known to be a jack of all trades, as the extensive repertoire list on its website ( makes immediately clear.

The 26-member choir works on an interesting model. It’s still supported by the state. But the state covers only overheads and salaries. State support enables it to exist and to rehearse. But to give concerts and to undertake tours, it needs to find the extra resources elsewhere.

The resources for the Irish tour come from the once-off projects award scheme the Arts Council introduced last year. The enterprising, Galway-based amateur choir, Cois Cladaigh, has received ¤45,000 to invite one of the world’s leading professional choirs to Ireland to bring audiences here one of the most remarkable choral works of the late 20th century.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tönu Kaljuste perform in Ballintubber Abbey (Friday, 10pm), the Augustinian Church, Galway (Saturday, 8.30pm), the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin (Sunday, 8pm), and St Peter’s Church, Drogheda (Monday 8pm). Details from 0818-205205, or Details of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s tour to
Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Sligo, Castlebar and Clifden from 1890 923543, or