Last year, a capacity crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall gave a rock-star reception to a concert of contemporary choral music. On Monday night, that same chorus will be back in Washington with a similar repertory — and you can still get tickets to the show.
The chorus — the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir — is hardly a household name in this country. In Estonia, though, it’s a national treasure, and its founder and frequent conductor, Tonu Kaljuste, has not only the looks of a rock star but also some of the same recognition and mystique.
Widely acclaimed in the international choral world, Kaljuste picks and chooses his projects throughout the year, and every summer he returns to his base on an unspoiled island off the coast of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. There, the annual Nargen Festival, which Kaljuste founded in 2009, offers performance art, opera and concerts in an old barn, with a special focus on the work of Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis, whom you probably haven’t heard of, and Arvo Pärt, whom you probably have.
It was a concert of Pärt’s music that drew the crowds to the Kennedy Center last year — and the gales of applause when it was over. Pärt enjoys something of a cult following even outside his native Estonia. Pure, powerful and unabashedly spiritual, his work pulverizes boundaries between pop and classical to find wide appeal among sophisticated music lovers of all tastes.
And its leading proponent is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
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“I believe that there are two types of singers,” Kaljuste has said, “those whose voices are their own instrument and know how to play them [and] those whose voices are an instrument but need someone else to play them. I prefer the first type of singer.”
Few choruses have such an intimate connection with their conductor and with the music they perform.
Kaljuste and his choir literally grew up together. The chorus has its roots in a children’s choir founded in 1951 by Kaljuste’s father and teacher, Heino Kaljuste. It was named Ellerhein, for an Estonian wildflower. Tonu sang in the choir as a child and watched as it gave rise, in the mid-1960s, to an offshoot: an amateur adult chorus largely made up of former choir members who had outgrown the children’s group but still wanted to sing.
By the 1970s, Tonu Kaljuste had taken over the adult choir, testing his wings as a conductor (by then bolstered by years of study) with a range of innovative, experimental programs of everything from baroque music to folk-influenced, text-based works by Tormis. In 1980, the chorus and Kaljuste took top prizes at the Bela Bartok choir competition in Hungary, a coup that allowed Kaljuste to transform Ellerhein into a professional ensemble with the more official-sounding name of Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. That’s still the group’s official name, but some Estonians refer to it simply as “Kaljuste’s choir.”
Arvo Pärt, of course, will be a main draw for Monday’s concert at the National City Christian Church in Washington. The Estonian chorus could hardly perform here without featuring the composer, who has become — not least thanks to a series of recordings on the ECM label over the years — something of a hallmark for the choir. But the concert will focus on three composers’ birthdays being observed this year: Pärt’s 80th, Jean Sibelius’s 150th and the 85th of Tormis, whose work became especially popular in Estonia as Soviet rule began to crumble in the late 1980s.
Folk-based, in Tormis’s case, doesn’t mean easy. “The Curse Upon Iron,” says concert presenter Neeta Helms, referring to the iconic Tormis work that will close the D.C. concert, “is not something that everyone can pull off.”
Helms is the founder and president of Classical Movements, a travel agency-cum-concert- presenter that has been hosting international choruses in Washington the past few years, often but not exclusively within the rubric of her new D.C.-area summer festival, Serenade. When Helms heard that the Estonian choir would be performing this year in Salt Lake City and in Colorado, Helms invited the group to Washington.
“Our whole goal,” she says, “is that we want people to do the music that they’re good at that many people don’t know.”
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Helms’s presenting series is rare in the music world in that it is part of a for-profit entity. “Commercially, this is not a smart move,” she says, “but artistically it’s exactly what we want to do. I don’t know if it will ever be financially viable as a series. Everybody else has sponsors; we don’t ask anybody for money, ever. We either make it happen or we don’t. But I’m very pleased with how it’s going, regardless.”
For the chorus, the American tour is merely a prelude to its biggest project of 2015.
In May in Tallinn, Pärt and American playright and director Robert Wilson will present the premiere of a collaborative theatrical piece based on some of Pärt’s best-known recent works, including “Adam’s Lament” and “Tabula Rasa,” as well as some new music he wrote for the occasion.
The union of Wilson’s static, ecstatic brand of light and movement with Pärt’s distinctive, luminous music will be sealed through performances by the ensemble that has made Pärt’s work its own: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Kaljuste. Anyone who has heard the group perform is unlikely to forget its name.