TALLINN – In the rehearsal hall he sits facing a semicircle of female choir singers. His eyes are fixed on the page of notes in front of him, and with one raised hand, he conducts the delicate music that fills the room. Paul Hillier, singer and renowned artistic director and chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, couldn’t be more in his element.“To me, music is a way of life. It’s not just something I do, it’s not a job,” Hillier explained after rehearsal. Talking to him, it is obvious that this is a man who lives, eats, and breathes music, and simply couldn’t imagine it any other way. “It’s like asking a fish what’s it like not being in the sea,” he said.
For the 55-year-old Dorchester native, the fixation started long ago, before he founded two now world-famous vocal ensembles, before he worked on the first of his more than 70 albums, or became a professor of music in California. Hillier’s journey really starts in his teen years when he became enraptured with Early Music, the kind of medieval, renaissance and baroque music that lends itself so well to chamber choirs.
“I can’t really explain that… when you hear a piece or a record or something and it completely grabs you. That was the kind of music that grabbed me,” he said.
And that, balanced with a healthy dose of new chamber music, is what he built his career around. In 1973, he founded the Hilliard Ensemble, which would eventually be recognized as one of the world’s finest chamber groups. After 17 years directing the ensemble, he left to start what would be a decade of academic life in the U.S.A. Initially a professor of music at the University of California in Davis, Hillier became director of the Early Music Institute at Indiana University in 1996. While in the U.S.A., he started another successful ensemble project, the Theater of Voices.
In 2000, Hillier began making the shift back to Europe and the world of conducting, and is now based in Copenhagen, where he lives with his young family. These days he splits his time between conducting the Ars Nova ensemble in Copenhagen, his continuing work with the Theater of Voices and his job in Estonia – he’s just starting his fourth season as chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
The Englishman’s connection to Estonia isn’t new though. In fact, Hillier’s first wife had Estonian parents. But more pivotally, in the early 1980s he discovered the work of Estonian composer Arvo Part.
“I think it was about 1983 that I first heard his music and completely fell for it. I just find it extremely beautiful and also somehow very fresh in its approach, quite unlike anything I had heard, and also sympathetic to the kind of early music that I’d been singing,” he said.
The Hilliard Ensemble recorded Part’s music and became instrumental in promoting his works in the West, thereby establishing a strong professional relationship between Hillier and Estonia that eventually led to his replacing Tonu Kaljuste as chief conductor of the EPCC when the latter retired.
Under his direction, the chamber choir is about to record the third and final CD of “Baltic Voices,” a collection of music from around the Baltic Sea area. Hillier has also introduced chamber opera into the mix to let some of his soloists shine through, and hopes to have the choir perform more Russian music in the future.
“Its’ a repertoire we can’t do with singers who don’t understand Russian or who don’t have some feeling for what Russian sounds like. You can’t really teach it. Western European choirs are not very good at that music. So it’s a golden opportunity,” he said.
And for a man with Hillier’s passion for music and penchant for trying new things, it’s probably not the only one that will come along.
Hillier and the EPCC will be performing again in Tallinn after returning from Italy in late September. See the choir’s website, www.epcc.ee, for details.