“The 26-member choir has a sound that is pure silver, light and flexible and able to create a shimmering atmosphere.” This is how Susan L. Pena, a music critic from the USA, characterized Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) in the newspaper Reading Eagle after the choir’s successful concert at Kutztown, Pennsylvania in November last year. Such impression of EPCC is no exception but rather a rule. Reading concert reviews published in San Francisco Chronicle, The Independent, The New York Times, the following phrases keep coming out: “These vocal artists convey belief in every syllable they sing”, “Immaculate performances, flawless sound.”, “The performances were so fine that they left you feeling like an ingrate, greedily hungry for more.”, “Music-making of heart-stopping beauty”.
Today EPCC, established by Tõnu Kaljuste in 1981, has become the most famous Estonian music group and one of the most demanded choirs in the world. In addition to home performances, EPCC gives over 20 concerts abroad every season. Concert tours have taken them all over the world: the most northern country has been Iceland and the most southern one Australia, the most westbound country so far is Portugal and the most easterly – Japan. In the season of 2008/09, concert tours with visiting conductors took the choir to the far west and deep east – with Tõnu Kaljuste to the USA and with the famous British conductor Stephen Layton to Hong Kong Arts Festival, China and Soul, South-Korea. The choir has been invited to reputable festivals like Edinburgh International Festival, Salzburg Festspiele, Abu Gosh Music Festival and Bergen International Festival. EPCC has given two concerts at BBC Proms in the famous Royal Albert Hall in London.
Both – conductors and critics have attempted to analyze the phenomenon of EPCC and think their success lies in the unique sound. Robina Young, the leading producer at Harmonia Mundi, the major record company of classical music, who has worked with hundreds of musicians, said: “For me, the secret lies in the choir’s sound that is extremely rare and characteristic only to them. A choir sounds good, if the voices and voice groups are in good balance, their tone is juicy, rich, full of nuance and expressive. I like working with EPCC immensely, since in addition to their great sound, they work very professionally, have flawless intonation and excellent articulation.”
On European stages with chief conductor Daniel Reuss
This is the 28th season for EPCC and in a certain way quite special, since the choir has had a new Artistic Director from September. The new Artistic Director and chief conductor of the choir is Daniel Reuss, who took the choir over from Paul Hillier.
Daniel Reuss is a Dutch conductor and belongs among the world’s top musicians. He has been the chief conductor of chamber choir Cappella Amsterdam and RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin. Besides he has worked with the Berlin Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, Akademie für Alte Musik of Berlin, Concerto Köln, Schönberg Ensemble, but has also means fresh impulses and new repertoire. With Reuss, his universality is highly estimated – he is equally comfortable with early music, baroque, romanticism as well as contemporary repertoire. Reuss prepared a programme of the choral pieces of Felix Mendelssohn to celebrate the 200th birthday anniversary of the famous romanticist. Frank Martin’s oratorio “Golgotha” will be recorded together with Cappella Amsterdam and Estonian National Symphonic Orchestra by Harmonia Mundi. However, the new general conductor wants to keep EPCC’s main focus on Estonian music, since the choir represents Estonian culture in the world. This is why the works of Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis stay in the repertoire. The compositions of Cyrillus Kreek are also widely performed. Speaking of EPCC, Reuss has said he is impressed by their sound that is very rich, full and warm: “The sound of EPCC clearly has a very human component that always touches the audience.”
Daniel Reuss takes the choir to many European countries this spring and summer: in April, a concert was held at the prestigious Wiener Konzerthaus, followed by concerts in two Italian towns – Bressanone and Merano. Festivals will also be attended – Schwetzinger Festspiele in Germany and L’été musical in France. In August, EPCC participates in opera production Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in Musical Theater Bremen. In the beginning of the next season, the choir will go to Switzerland and perform with Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in Montreux, St. Gallen and Luzern.
Estonian musicians’ triumph in the USA
In addition to performances in Europe, the concert tours of EPCC in the USA have also become regular. In November 2008, they visited the USA for the tenth time already. Together with Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, EPCC gave altogether 11 concerts in Mid and East American cities Richmond (State of Virginia), St. Louis (Missouri), Kansas City (Kansas) College Park near Washington, (Maryland), Cincinnati (Ohio), Ann Arbor (Michigan), Cleveland (Ohio), Ithaca (New York), New York, Kutztown (Pennsylvania) and in Toronto, Canada. Compositions of Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Toivo Tulev, Antonio Vivaldi and Tõnu Kõrvits were performed.
American audience received EPCC with great enthusiasm: halls with 500-600 seats in university towns, churches and concert houses were sold out and the critics published positive reviews about the choir, the orchestra and also about Arvo Pärt’s and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music in Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Toronto Star and elsewhere. This is what Timothy McDonald wrote in Kansas City Star (8.11.2008): “Estonian music has been the rage in classical circles in recent years, especially the works of Arvo Pärt. Yet another composer’s star is rising in the east of Europe: Erkki-Sven Tüür. /…/ The ensemble is one of the world’s great exponents of this music and did not disappoint its audience. The performance was magnificent, with singers and instrumentalists employing minimal vibrato but rich tone, wonderfully crafted phrasing and effective dynamic contrast to underscore the meaning of the text.”
One of the most important performances took place at the New York Community Church on November 17 to celebrate the enactment of the Visa Waiver Program between Estonia and the USA on the same day as well as the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.
For many, the year 2008 concert tour culminated in Toronto, described by John Terauds in The Toronto Star (21. 11. 2008) as follows: “Every available pew and chair in the spacious, domed, Byzantine-style, century-old Anglican church was taken by people eager not only to hear one of the world’s finest choirs, but also to experience 20th- and 21st-century compositions alongside older fare. /…/ From the first notes, the 26 singers and 20 instrumentalists were models of balance and precision.”
Tõnu Kaljuste also underlined the success of the concert at the Toronto St. Anne’s Anglican Church with Pärt’s “Te Deum” as the highlight. Kaljuste praised the American audience: “There was no typical “choral music audience” and “orchestral music fans” as such. Our concert was attended by people without narrow musical preferences. They spontaneously jumped up and applauded, standing. This made me feel as if we have scored a goal in an important game.”
In addition to tight concert schedule, EPCC records 2-3 CDs every season. Several records have won awards, the biggest one being the Grammy Award, won in 2007 for the CD “Arvo Pärt. Da Pacem” (conductor Paul Hillier, issued by Harmonia Mundi). However, all their recordings have been sung with uncompromising quality, evidenced by the fact that their records have been among Grammy nominees for ten times. Additionally, they have won Diapason d’or, the award of German music critics. Their CDs have repeatedly made to the top of the Billboard charts.
Records have been made under labels like ECM, Virgin Classics, Carus, and Harmonia Mundi. EPCC, too, has released own records to perpetuate Estonian quality music. In 2007, the best of Mart Saar’s choral pieces were recorded, last year Cyrillus Kreek’s „Requiem“ and “Kreegi vihik” by the Estonian younger generation composer Tõnu Kõrvits. The latest recording by EPCC is Arvo Pärt’s “In Principio” under the label of ECM.