Just what, exactly, are they putting in that Baltic Sea? If you’ve been following the worldwide classical music scene the past couple of decades, you have to be asking yourself such a question, as so many renowned musicians hail from the region. From the idiosyncratic Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer to the intrepid Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Baltics seem to be a hotbed of some of today’s most interesting musical activity.
The Baltics boast particular pride among vocal groups. The Swedish Radio Choir and the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella (which performed last week) are both at the top of their genre. So, too, with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, which performed under its illustrious director, Paul Hillier, at the Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side Wednesday.
The program of Russian choral music proved to be a soberly intense evening. The offerings from this specialized repertoire was evenly divided between old and new, and the most contemporary voices were the most thought provoking. For example, the longest work of the evening, Galina Grigorjeva’s (b. 1962) “On Leaving,” which represents the departure of the soul from the body, displayed a keen ear for sonorities. Subtle dissonance here and there inflected, but did not disrupt, a pervasively expansive quality.
And the encore, an “Alleluia” by the Lithuanian Algirdas Martinaitis (b. 1950), juxtaposed an almost Christmas- carol bounce with undercurrents of unease. The unresolved ending proved particularly disquieting.
The 18th century was chiefly represented by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), whose conservative style (even given the time) effectively emits the sense of suffering and mystery that is at the heart of so much Russian music. It was also revealing to hear a work from the classical era by Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785). His “In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep,” included some intricate counterpoint, which the ensemble dispatched with confidence.
Throughout the evening, the choir sang with control, precision and care. It is not a group that relishes overt drama, and Hillier favors blend and balance over a larger emotional palette. Indeed, the most affecting moments were often the most quiet, where a barely perceptible sound demonstrated the group’s magnificent sense of ensemble. The chorus barely seemed to move, which reinforced the reserved, grave nature of the music.
Its comportment, as well as its musicality, also underscored the general aesthetic of Russian Orthodox choral music. As a matter of doctrine, musical instruments are not allowed inside church doors, and choral singing in the service assumes a significance on par with prayer. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Chorus distinctly evoked that quality of devotion.
The gilded, seemingly ageless Orensanz Center, a former synagogue, provided the perfect backdrop for the meditative and often ravishing performances by this formidable ensemble.