According to Peter C. Bouteneffi, an American theologian, musician, and expert on Arvo Pärt’s music, there is no better instrument for performing Pärt’s music than the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tõnu Kaljuste.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) and conductor Tõnu Kaljuste were on a concert tour in the USA and Canada from February 1st to 8th. During this tour, four concerts featuring works by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Arvo Pärt were held in major North American cultural centers – New York, Toronto, Washington, and Philadelphia.

From this year’s tour, which is already the seventeenth in a row for the EPCC, the main takeaway was the confirmation that the chamber choir’s cultural ties with North America have not cooled off despite the performance hiatus caused by the global pandemic. Quite the opposite – the audience, which has been cultivated over the years and holds a profound interest in Estonian music, was once again present in significant numbers at the concerts.

“We were so delighted to see how many people were in the church, which was packed to the rafters. Present were, of course, the local Estonians, also from neighboring states, but also many Americans who are very enthusiastic about Estonia and Arvo Pärt’s music,” described the concert audience in New York, the local Estonian community leader, singing teacher, and member of the Estonian American National Council, Laine Kõiva-Kingo.

The EPCC a cappella concerts, which took place to full houses during the tour, were met with thunderous applause and admiration throughout, an occurrence that is not at all common in the USA and is partly due to the fact that there are no professional choirs there, nor performances of a comparable level.

This enthusiastic reception from the audience in the USA was also confirmed by Tõnu Kaljuste. “Trips to America always recharge the batteries with their incredibly energetic audience reception. They are always ecstatic!” acknowledged Kaljuste.

The Estonian composer living in New York, Jonas Tarm, explained that although Arvo Pärt’s music is occasionally performed in New York, it is rarely heard at such quality. “The silence and sensation that arose during the concert are a great rarity for New Yorkers, as silence is not often found in this city. My musician colleagues were astounded by the choir’s performances of Palestrina alone, which are seldom heard at such a level in this region, not to mention the renditions of Pärt’s music. In my opinion, the performances of Pärt’s works were the most beautiful and powerful, especially in the silence, the peace that is not characteristic of New York. The audience’s concentration and emotional attention were exceptionally strong, and this is a rare phenomenon here,” said Tarm.

After the New York concert, American theologian, musician, and Arvo Pärt’s music expert Peter C. Bouteneff also spoke about creating a unique experience for Americans.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, and I think we were somehow both. We were both somewhere else, but also very grounded, grounded in the earth. And that is owing to the composers who span centuries, of course, and one who is especially dear to all of us, to all our hearts, still living, thriving, still smiling a little mournfully,” Bouteneff said.

“And that’s Arvo Pärt, whom some of us know as a as a very, very dear friend and an inspiration, and who is one of the jewels of Estonia too. But even Arvo Pärt needs an interpreter. He needs an instrument, and there’s no better instrument than the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and conductor Tõnu Kaljuste for his music. And so, we were all tonight part of something very, very special,” he added.

The chamber choir’s cultural ties with North America date back to 1990, and according to Kerby Lovallo, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s agent in USA, the EPCC is the only professional choir from overseas to tour in the United States on a regular basis over the last 25 years.

Charles T. Downey also wrote a superb review of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance for the Washington Classical Review: “Few ensembles have such a long and authoritative history with Pärt’s music. Even the Tallis Scholars, who performed some of the composer’s works when they appeared in concert at St. John’s in 2022, did not match the Estonians’ effortless grace in this music. The strong rapport between the singers and their veteran leader, who beat the often tricky metrical changes with understated efficiency, translated into utter formal clarity in the sound they produced.”

From the same concert evening in Washington, NPR’s music editor Thomas Huizenga shared his impressions with ERR correspondent Laura Kalam:”That choir is like one single organism, with all these chords. Like a well-regulated organ, but it’s better because it’s all these human voices. And so, there is so much… I think I’m a little overcome right now, because there is so much drama in the way that Arvo Pärt specially constructs his music, that you just become overwhelmed.”

Composer Omar Daniel whose piece “Antarktos Monodies” premiered at the EPCC concert in Toronto, also expressed his gratitude. ” It was a marvelous pleasure to hear the EPCC last night. To experience the artistry, blend, precision and colour of the choir in an unaccompanied setting was rather amazing. It was a great privilege to have written a work for you, and to have it performed on such a stellar program,” Omar Daniel thanked the choir on his behalf.

Alongside an interest in culture and professional music, it’s perhaps even more important to highlight the significance of the chamber choir’s visit for the entire Estonian community in North America. The choir felt the strong support, care, and warm reception of the local Estonians at every turn – this was expressed not only in the enthusiasm for the concerts but also at receptions organized by the Consulate General of Estonia and the Estonian embassies in New York, Washington, and Toronto. These events created opportunities for direct interaction between the artists and Estonian fans, which were fully taken advantage of.

The most significate evidence of the choir’s presence in the United States being important is the fact that the Estonian American National Council (EANC), which was established to unite Estonians living in the United States, decided to support the EPCC’s concert tour as a major sponsor. EANC, whose primary goal today is to raise awareness of Estonia among all Americans and to stand for the freedom and security of the Republic of Estonia as well as to work in the interests of American Estonians, sees supporting cultural projects as an opportunity to amplify its voice and expand its reach.

In addition to financial support, it’s essential to emphasize the diligence and dedication of council representatives Marju Rink-Abel, Laine Kõiva-Kingo, Leelo Linask, Gilda Karu, Alvar Soosaar, Mai-Liis Bartling, and others in spreading information about the concert tour among the local community. It was astonishing that several members of the EANC made effort to attend all EPCC concerts in the United States over the course of one and a half weeks and were consistently inspired by them.

“It is always good, and even important, when groups like the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir come to perform in USA. Such concert tours and cultural events create new and significant contacts and introduce Estonia positively to a wider society. For Estonian-Americans, it is a great honor to welcome such Estonian treasures as the EPCC. We feel great pride and deep touch of an emotion when the opportunity arises to show the American audience and acquaintances to how talented, beautiful, enterprising, and intelligent the Estonian people are, and how rich and refreshing their ancient culture and modern approach are,” explained Gilda Karu, who is a member of the board and the most experienced representative of EANC.

Even solely for the sake of understanding such a mindset, it’s worthwhile to be the cultural ambassador of Estonia across the ocean. Experiences and connections brought back from such concert tours help us better define our position here in Estonia and affirm the joy of being Estonian. Moreover, they underscore the importance and significance of the true mission of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, on a broader scale.