Estonians Honor Choral Tradition In Toronto Return

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir made its fifth visit to Toronto since 2000. (Photo by Kaupo Kikkas)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — In the musical world, Estonia is famous for its long-standing choral tradition. It’s a broad-based tradition: a form of cultural resistance spanning 800 years of foreign domination in the small Baltic nation. In the mid-19th century, the popular singing movement blossomed, with huge singing festivals and competitions. And in the 1980s, Estonian choirs sang patriotic songs forbidden by the Soviet authorities, in what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” leading to Estonian independence.

Conductor Kaspars Putniņš: vocal virtues. (Timurs Subhankulovs).

Although not nearly so old, a tradition of bringing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir to Toronto has been cultivated by Soundstreams, a local concert presenter. At the Estonian choir’s most recent appearance, on Feb. 2, Soundstreams artistic director Lawrence Cherney noted that this was the fifth time his organization had hosted the professional, 26-voice group since 2000.

The Toronto engagement was part of an extensive North American tour that will take the choir to Princeton, N.J. (Feb. 9); Durham (Feb. 10), Greenville, N.C. (Feb. 11); Richmond, Va. (Feb. 12), Phoenix, Ariz. (Feb. 14), Tucson, Ariz. (Feb. 15), and Los Angeles (Feb. 18). The tour culminates in four performances with the Sarasota (Fla.) Orchestra (Feb. 23-26).

Frequent visits to Toronto have made the Estonians well known to choral enthusiasts and also to the city’s substantial Estonian community. No doubt, the crowd that packed Toronto’s ornate and acoustically warm St. Paul’s Basilica expected something excellent and astonishing – and they weren’t disappointed.

Under the baton of Kaspars Putniņš, the choir displayed a wide range of vocal virtues. Intonation was impeccable, even in challenging contemporary works. Dynamic range was equally impressive, running the gamut from whispers to power chords. Balance, phrasing, and tone color were likewise well shaped by Putniņš at all times. Yet the concert was so consistently consistent that one quality seemed to be in short supply: variety of mood. This was an overwhelmingly solemn and somber program, and the metronome rarely rose above the 60 mark.

Riho Esko Maimets had a world premiere on the program.

The Rachmaninoff selections that opened the concert – “The Theotokis,” “Ever Vigilant Prayer,” and three excerpts from the Vespers (“My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord,” “Praise the Name of the Lord,” and “Rejoice O Virgin”) – established the choir’s style. While some choirs might strive for effusive lushness and bloom in this repertoire, the Estonians’ tight, precise, and refined sound rendered this music engagingly transparent.

One of the admirable things about Soundstreams is the series’ commitment to Canadian composers. Cherney makes it his mission to ask the touring ensembles he books to program Canadian music, and this way of doing things often gives Soundstreams programs a tailored rather than an off-the-rack quality. And so it was with this concert: the visitors included two Canadian composers of Estonian descent: Riho Esko Maimets and Omar Daniel.

Maimets, born in Toronto, is a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute and now lives in Estonia. His Three Prayers from the Holy Rosary (“Trinitarian Formula,” “Apostles’ Creed,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”) received its world premiere in this concert. Stylistically, the Prayers seemed to pick up where Rachmaninoff left off with regard to harmony and texture. However, in the second and third movements, he carefully introduced tone-clusters and washes of dissonance.

Omar Daniel set text by Estonian poet Marie Under.

Daniel, who is a full generation older than Maimets, teaches at Western University in London, Ontario. His contribution – again, a world premiere – was Sõduri Ema Part III. The only secular work on the program, its text by the Estonian poet Marie Under deals with a mother watching her soldier-son go off to war. Daniel’s style could be described as tonally subversive: he likes to generate dissonance by piling consonances on top of each other in unstable ways. He also displayed a penchant for short, choppy syntax, which made Part III of Söduri Ema sound like what it is: a fragment from a larger work. (Program notes promised that the whole piece will be performed at a later date, in both Canada and Estonia.)

Alfred Schnittke’s tonally adventurous Three Sacred Hymns (“Hail to the Virgin Mary,” “Lord Jesus, Son of God,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”) returned the program to religious themes. In the first movement, the choir was fluid and supple. But dramatic contrasts followed, with intense fortissimos in the second and third movements.

Arvo Pärt’s ‘Summa’ was an austere ritual. (Kaupo Kikkas)

The remainder of the program was taken up with music by Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s most famous living composer. In Putniņš’ hands, Pärt’s famous “Summa” was an austere ritual. Similarly, “The Woman with the Alabaster Box” had a stark, impassive beauty. Pärt’s simple setting of the “Nunc dimittis” text was a nicely paced crescendo to a brief, dazzling climax. Finally, “Doppo la vittoria,” about St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, was a mercurial setting that contained chant-like passages and even a quirky little march. Once again, Putniņš and his choir gave a tasteful and refined performance.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

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