Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir @ Troy Music Hall

TROY — The Troy Chromatics presented an afternoon of elegance and restraint with the concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra on Sunday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.  There were only two composers on the bill, J.S. Bach in the first half and Arvo Part after intermission.  Conductor Tonu Kaljuste’s interpretations highlighted their similarities, allowing their pieces to have a dialogue across some 300 years of musical time.

Each composer was first introduced with an orchestra piece.  Three selections from Bach’s Art of the Fugue were played at a moderate tempo and dynamic.  Though a feast of counterpoint, the effect was something like watching a slow moving sculpture.

Kaljuste’s manner added to the effect.  He’s not a busy conductor but he’s a solid and reliable one.  His left hand had lots of quirky action, including big circular crescendos and oddly styled cues that taken together drew out polished and cohesive performances.

In Bach’s Cantata “Break Bread with the Hungry” BWV 39, the chorus had a glorious sound, full bodied but never forced.  It was one of those moments when you remember what a great hall we have.  The Cantata included two recitatives and three short arias, each delivered with poise by soloists drawn from the chorus.  The texts, sung in German, were all about Christian charity.  If such admonitions were always served up so beautifully, we’d be living in a better world.

Estonian composer Arvo Part, now 83 years old, came to international attention about 30 years ago for his reverent take on minimalism.  His “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” (1977) is a five-minute enveloping essay for strings.  As in the Bach that began the afternoon, there’s lots going on beneath the surface, but the effect was a shimmering mass.

His Salve Regina (2001) brought to mind early music, thanks to the performance in which the choir sang with minimal vibrato.  The choir had no need to emote.  The music itself provided the imploring sentiment.  Religious ardor continued in “Adam’s Lament” (2009).  Both of these sacred works were more varied and less repetitive than the minimalist genre suggests.  The expressive bandwidth, though, remained constrained.

An electronic organ was part of the accompaniment in the Bach.  In the Salve Regina, it played a part intended for celesta and in the Cantus it provided the opening bell tones.  A delicate two-minute tease of an encore was an Estonian lullaby arranged by Part.

One more happy note:  the crowd was noticeably larger than usual with the Music Hall more than half full.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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