We interviewed Kaspars Putniņš, artistic director and chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir [https://www.facebook.com/kammerkoor], on the occasion of the concert in Turin on Sunday, September 13th, with music by Arvo Pärt and Morton Feldman.
Benedetta Saglietti: The choir has a huge repertoire, from Petrus Aberlardus to Pärt. As a conductor what is your approach to contemporary choral music?
Kaspars Putniņš: Music is a large part of my life, and I think that it is very important to be in touch with composers of our time, otherwise music risks becoming a sort of “museum”, or just a beautiful decoration of our lives. Trends in contemporary choral music are really interesting.
BS: What sort of difficulties, if any, do have singers have in contemporary, as compared with classical choral repertoire?
KP: In contemporary music the sound is – of course – very complicated. There are many technical problems, for example, intonations that call for special training. Another example of difficulty in this repertoire would be the performance of microtonal music. But, after all, music is music, ancient or contemporary, you have to pay attention mainly to its meaning, not the technical issues.
BS: This is the third time the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has performed at the MiTo Settembremusica Festival in Turin – they were guests in 1994 and 2004. At the second one, in Bose monastery, the choir performed the [Pärt’s] beautiful “Kanon Pokajanen”, under the baton of Tõnu Kaljuste. The composition is nearly one and a half hours long. But in the performance in Turin on Sunday, September 13th you also perform Morton Feldman’s “Rotkho Chapel”. So I presume you will play a scaled down version of the “Kanon Pokajanen”. Please tell me more about this.
KP: First of all it should be said that the programm of the concert here in Turin is a very special one. It has been put together by the artistic director Enzo Restagno, and I think it is a very good combination. Usually we perform the “Kanon” alone. The “Kanon” has 9 movements, but you can perform it separately. I just have to arrange the sequence [Ode I, Ode VI, Kondakion, Ikos, Ode IX, Prayer after the Canon], but for sure, today we are going to sing a shorter version. The most important themes of the “Kanon” are preserved in the selected pieces.
BS: I know that the choir has a special relationship with Arvo Pärt. Please explain your special connection with his works as a choir.
KP: You know, I started as artistic director and chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir just in September 2014. But of course I met Arvo Pärt in several occasions. The choir has performed most of his works, especially under my predecessor Tõnu Kaljuste. We took part in the celebration of Pärt’s 80th birthday, as well as a very big project in May 2015 in Tallinn, where the world premiere of “Adam’s Passion” was performed, to the music of Arvo Pärt, directed by the American conductor Robert Wilson. But as to a special relationship, that’s simply… life! It just happens!
BS: Just as in the real chapel [Houston, Texas] Morton Feldman’s composition “Rothko Chapel” speaks to people of every belief, regardless of their religion.
In Italy this piece is rarely performed (never in Turin), and for some people Feldman’s music is perceived as “difficult”, “strange”, or “esoteric”. Can you briefly comment on this work?
KP: I am not really at ease in describing music, I am not a musicologist! To describe music with words is sometimes to reduce music to words. And music has its own language!
BS: I just want to ask if you could please give us some “clues” to help us as listeners?
KP: Firstly, one has to remain very focused and at the same time very open to the music. You just have to try to get into this piece. Secondly, this is a innner monologue, just like when somebody speaks to himself. Viola is the “person”, the principal voice, in this piece. Thirdly, I intend this as a contemplation of human life. Sometimes beautiful moments appear, like the marvelous soprano solo. When these wonderful moments appear you may ask yourself what they are. I don’t know. Maybe childhood memories. Rothko’s painting and Feldman’s music are in my opinion not a strictly similar, but they’re a sort of conversation.
BS: You have conducted this piece so many times, so I am curious to know how the public reacts to this music? What do you think?
KP: This special combination (Arvo Pärt/Morton Feldman) is really new, so I don’t know exactly. We will see! Each has a very special aesthetic quality, and I hope the public will follow us on this special trip.
BS: Thank you very much for taking time to talk with me and to share your views with the public!