The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is touring
Suddenly, it’s all happening for Arvo Pärt in
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
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
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
IT MIGHT SEEM obvious, now, that an Estonian professional choir would gravitate towards the music of
I caught up with Tönu Kaljuste at a rehearsal in
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.”
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
“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
composer like Pärt should have written so much choral music.
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
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
In the newly independent
“It’s easier to find a thousand people in
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
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
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tönu Kaljuste perform in Ballintubber Abbey (Friday, 10pm), the
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is touring