Many countries with small military budgets arm themselves with culture. Art tells outsiders what a people think and feel; it also provides a rallying ground and common cause for those within a nation’s borders. Never underestimate its power. Maybe this is why musical visitors from Eastern Europe – in this case the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Nov. 5 – seem to arrive literally brandishing their homegrown creative impulse. Despite a rainy night and the out-of-the-way location on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, this shabby chic ex-synagogue was nearly full, with an audience split evenly between the young and the curious, and older people hoping for brief contact with former homelands. If the music ran from the 17th century to the present, the Orthodox Church was never out of earshot. Recent pieces like Galina Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving” (mournful, stately), Arvo Pärt’s Two Slavonic Psalms (pushed along by uneven phrases) and Alfred Schnittke’s Three Sacred Songs (with gently subversive inner harmony and changes of key) more or less ignored the 20th-century world of sound around them. Dmitry Bortniansky, appearing three times on the program, was a
contemporary of Mozart and survived into old age as Mozart did not, dying in 1825. He created a point where Baroque choral style, the operatic tendencies of the late 18th century and the darkly colored, drone-driven modal style of the Orthodox Church had little trouble meeting. He was a musician of astonishing sophistication and one of the few forgotten composers we might think about remembering.
The Estonians, singing a cappella, were house-proud for their own Mr. Part but also embraced neighboring music from Russia and Ukraine as well as that of two 18th-century Italian transplants, Baldassare Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti. The chorus sang richly, faithfully in tune and with the expected conviction. Under the British conductor Paul Hillier they were precise without being fanatic about it. It is a nice sound.
Allegiance to one’s national music is two-edged. The underpinning that it provides is both strength-giving and reassuring. The heavy magnetic field can also immobilize the imagination. But perhaps I am too American to trust 20th-century composers so abjectly obeisant to their past. A “Gloria” by Vasily Titov, very beautiful, was also sung.