The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is the headliner act at the next edition of the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival.
The human voice is the most primal and pristine of musical instruments. When used well, and certainly when that happens in an a cappella choral format, the results can be nothing short of divine. Actually, epithets relating to the sphere of the sacred are entirely appropriate in the context of the forthcoming local concerts by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC). The esteemed ensemble is the headliner act at the next edition of the twice yearly Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival which takes place on Shavuot, June 7-9, with the EPCC performing two concerts in the acoustically accommodating Kiryat Ye’arim Church in the Jerusalem Hills village.
Over the past 27 years, the festival repertoire has taken in a very expansive range of works, from across the centuries and astride numerous genres and styles. This time round the program takes in baroque works and songs written by the likes of Yossi Banai and Paul McCartney, with plenty of variety between those stylistic goalposts.
The EPCC is one of the most celebrated choirs in the world, and will perform here under the steady stewardship of Kaspars Putnins who has been the choir’s artistic director and chief conductor since 2014. Putnins is actually Latvian, but all the Baltic countries have a wonderful lengthy tradition of fine choral endeavor.
While concurring with that statement Putnins feels the natural excellence of vocal skills is not confined to his country of birth and its immediate neighbors. “I would probably extend to this to most of northern Europe, especially Lutheran Europe. They have a good choir tradition in general. You can speak of Scandinavian countries, and then there’s the Netherlands, northern Germany, Belgium, and of course Great Britain. All these have a long tradition, and still have a very vivid choral tradition.”
Then again, not every country has facilities of the size of the conductor’s country of birth and the country where he currently spends a large part of his working life. “What is special about the Baltic countries is that we have these festivities that are called national singing festivals, every five years.” The EPCC’s homeland is about to unfurl the might of its choral prowess at the Estonian Song Festival, which is due to take place in Tallinn in July. The event is expected to attract audiences of 80,000, with a truly amazing 30,000-plus choristers due to perform. “No other country has anything like that kind of venue,” he observes.
PUTNINS HAD an early good start to his path through the beauty and majesty of choral artistry. “My mother is a choir conductor by education. She used to sing in a very good choir. As small child, I was brought to rehearsals,” he recalls. “I still remembered being completely overwhelmed by the music, which I thought was so beautiful and so intense. It really penetrated my heart and my soul.” And the youngster never looked back.
But while he is steeped in the history and tradition of choral music from back in Renaissance times, Putnins is always looking to forge ahead and break new ground. As such, he is constantly on the lookout for fresh input by commissioning new works, and the EPCC does its best to feature compositions by 83 year old Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s preeminent composer of classical and religious music.
Indeed, Pärt’s Magnificat is included the EPCC’s June 8 concert in Abu Ghosh, among a highly varied lineup that also takes in works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mahler and J.S. Bach. The latter will feature some instrumental input courtesy of acclaimed Estonian organist Ene Salumäe. Salumäe will perform two more works by Bach the day before, in a program that also includes scores by Brahms, Mendelssohn and 20th-century avant-garde Austrian-Hungarian composer Giorgi Ligeti.
Putnins says he endeavors to maintain a firm grip on the bedrock creations of choral music, while always keeping an ear trained on plying a new course forward. “I have been working with professional choirs since I was very young, since the age of 25. I was very lucky – and still am – to work with a lot of radio choirs. I started in 1992. These professional groups, especially in small countries, do not stick to one particular style. We would probably devote a little more time to one genre or another, but basically, these choirs tend to have almost anything in their repertoire.”
That line of entertainment attack will be adhered to in Abu Ghosh as well. “We want to present the different facets of the sound of the choir, the different moods and energies in the concert,” he explains. “We move from Bach into Ligeti, and then we have Mendelssohn and some Brahms, and then we have some Mahler, and a little bit of Pärt’s music as well. I think it is a nice contrasting set of works.”
The same goes for the rest of the festival program.
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