The acoustics of Herbst Hall do not flatter the human voice. Singers complain that it’s difficult to hear each other onstage, and the sounds choirs lob like softballs out over the audience often seem meekly to drop before reaching the plate. From the audience, it’s clear with all but the best choirs that the acoustic conditions inspire a timidity that is difficult to overcome. Last Thursday — after a shaky start — Paul Hillier’s Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir showed itself to be in the category of “best choirs” by overcoming the limitations of the hall and delivering powerful, ringing performances of demanding international repertoire.
For this SF Performances concert, Hillier and his choir embarked on an exploratory journey, sharing choral music discoveries from countries around the Baltic Sea: Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Finland, and of course Estonia. The tour was magical.
First, to get used to the hall, they cut their teeth on Cyrillus Kreek’s Three Psalms of David (1923). It was a tentative performance of a pleasant enough piece, but in the context of this concert, a throwaway. Arvo Pärt’s Two Slavonic Psalms (1984) fared better, showing off the women’s exquisite control. It’s not easy to make shapely music from Pärt’s tintinnabuli. The repetitions are a minefield for singers in particular, who must avoid the deadly danger of sagging pitches. Pärt’s gift is knowing how long we can hear a particular gesture repeated, how long our love for it will last; and Hillier understands that there’s no such thing as true repetition (just as no two snowflakes are alike). With his singers seemingly in a trance, he led them forward through the piece and brought it to life.
The 27-voice choir diminished to fourteen for Veljo Tormis’ delightful Kullervo’s Message (1994), a setting of a passage from the Finnish National Epic, the Kalevala (sung in an English translation). The piece is a ballad, telling the story of a young man who goes to battle, only to receive a succession of messages notifying him of the deaths of his loved ones. The music is exciting and dramatic, built on a foundation of persistent rhythms designed to recall the thundering of hoofbeats. The climax is a breathtaking passage where the hero hears of the death of his mother: the music manages to imitate the sounds inside a head full of pain, high and ringing and dense, like the whistle of a train full of bad news bearing down on you when you can’t move a muscle. The choir delivered a vivid performance (their minor difficulties with English diction were charming), full of passion and drama and terrific singing.
Blending styles
Sven David Sandström’s questionable medley-style conjunction of Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer, O Lord” with his “response” to it (1986) received a performance of unexpected and unusual power. When singing this piece, choirs have a tendency to heighten the contrasts between the two compositional styles; Hillier chose wisely to build through the Purcell (lingering on the suspensions, emphasizing crossed harmonies) into the more dissonant music of Sandström, so that it felt all of a piece. It was one of the concert’s more moving moments.
For his Suite de Lorca (1973), Einojuhani Rautavaara set four of the Spaniard’s poems in a sprawling work notable for its vibrant textures, piquant word painting and rhythmic fluency, all done justice in this performance. But the evening’s highlight was Per Nųrgård’s Winter Hymn (1976/1984), sung here in English translations. The nine stanzas are set in a complex grid of interlocking musical symmetries, with motives mirroring each other in time and building to an unforgettable climax on the lines: “He grows of you: Your heart a bud. He is your life. You are his blood.” Here the harmonies seem to expand outward and then fill back in until the richness is nearly unbearable. Hillier’s singers maintained a stunning balance, allowing the strong pitches to speak and the subordinate ones to linger quietly in the background.
After the improbably jaunty rhythms of Urmas Sisask’s “Gloria Patri” (1988), the concert concluded with three historical settings of sacred Orthodox texts. Russia’s Vasily Titov (c. 1650-1710) and Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) received creditable performances of their “Gloria” and “Let My Prayer Arise,” respectively, the Italian Giuseppe Sarti’s (1729-1802) “Now the Powers of Heaven” was equally lovely. It was interesting to note the physical engagement of the singers during performance of these last, classical, tonal works. Suddenly their faces were activated, their bodies moving through the music’s phrases. While I don’t think it signified an emotional distance from the newer music they’d presented earlier (the performances were too committed for that), the contrast was striking.
The audience demanded an encore, and was rewarded with an unnamed Estonian folksong arranged by Martin Saar.