The Estonian choir is regarded as the foremost interpreter of Part’s contemplative and profoundly spiritual choral music and shares an intrinsic connection with the composer. It was founded in 1981 by conductor Tonu Kaljuste, who has become close to Part and is credited with bringing him to the world’s attention by adding his works to the choir’s repertoire; something that became increasingly possible after Estonia’s renewed independence in 1991.
For Kaljuste, Part’s work is not just about prayer, but also “wonderful and interesting stories with a beautiful moral”. His mission as a conductor has always been to bring Part’s deceptively simple music to life.
Legend has it that when Part was a young boy growing up in a modest household with a dilapidated piano, he would ride his bicycle to the market to listen to symphony concerts on the radio playing from loudspeakers. He was inspired to be a musician, but one who wrote different, more distinct music. Kaljuste believes this is because he hears things differently.
It is, he agrees, hard to pinpoint exactly why Part’s music is so unique or to explain its appeal. He has influenced the likes of Bjork, R.E.M. and PJ Harvey and was the most performed contemporary composer of 2018. To conduct it authentically, according to Kaljuste, you have to know how to use both singers and instruments to “show” the architecture of the sound, bring the beauty of it to life and interpret the language of silence, which is the key to “opening up” this composer.
In Estonia choirs have always been highly regarded. After centuries of oppression, the country sang its way to freedom when it ended Soviet rule with its collective lung power during the famous 1988 Singing Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered together to sing songs banned by the Russians as a way of expressing their will and making political demands. While Kaljuste is “deeply grateful” that his nation’s music is now in demand internationally (2019 is looking particularly busy) and that his choir wears the prefix “Grammy award-winning” he is not particularly proud about his role in that.
“Proud is a nice word but it is a little bit arrogant,”‘ he says thoughtfully. “I am happy.”
While Bach was inspired by God and shaped by his Lutheran upbringing, Part’s musical influences were initially more political than religious. Growing up in communist Estonia, he found himself at odds with the regime on pretty much every level. As a result, his work often takes a stand against the perceived injustices of the world in a way that is exquisitely beautiful yet deeply human. He converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1971, and, like Bach, his aim, he once said, is to communicate the spiritual power that he sees as music’s essential purpose.
The pinnacle of next month’s concerts will be the performance of his Berliner Messe, which has been described as a “clear window to the soul”. Commissioned for the 90th Katholikentag in Berlin in 1990, it was originally scored for soloists and organ, and later revised for chorus and string orchestra. In it, Part makes use of his famous tintinnabuli technique (the music of the “little bells”) that melds together two single-voice structural lines – melody and the sound of the triad – into a whole. (Part once described these lines as being a metaphor for life; the melodic line is our sins, the other is forgiveness).
ACO director Richard Tognetti, not a believer himself, is nevertheless deeply grateful for religion’s musical legacy, particularly for the existence of Martin Luther, without whom there would be no Bach. “Thank God for Luther,” he says, somewhat ironically. “What Bach composed, the way he composed and the amount he composed and what he has left us, it’s the best thing about religion. There is nothing better left to us through religion that you don’t otherwise get from an atheist life.”
Kaljuste will come to Australia with the choir, although these days he is no longer the principal conductor (a role currently held by Kaspars Putniņs) and will not take the baton for every concert. Conductors are like chefs, he muses, they need to get the repertoire just right in order to satisfy their audiences. It’s a harder task these days owing to the streaming revolution. “We have to bring fresh energy to music that has been heard much already.”
He thinks the ingredients for this numinous concert are perfect, blending Part and Bach’s heavenly works with Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s spiritual take on an earthy tune from Arnhem Land, Djilile – which means “whistling duck on a billabong”.
Says Tognetti: “You can go to Leipzig and tread the soil but you can’t feel the spirit of the music, whereas when you go to Arnhem Land or the Kimberley you get this extraordinary sense of spirit that comes from the landscape and that’s why we put it in the program.”
And no, he doesn’t believe that Part is the Bach of our time, though both composers bring an incredible sense of beauty to their music that can shock, uplift, ignite and console. “Actually,” he muses, “I think it is highly possible that Bach is himself God.”
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and ACO perform at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on February 2, 5 and 6 and Sydney Opera House on February 3. In Melbourne, they perform at Hamer Hall on February 10 and 11. aco.com.au