By John Fleming
BRADENTON, Fla. – Since becoming music director of the Sarasota Orchestra in 2013, Estonian conductor Anu Tali has wasted no time in bringing music from her homeland on the Baltic Sea to the Gulf Coast of Florida. On Feb. 2, she led the orchestra in the U.S. premiere of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 6 (Strata).
For a country that occupies a small corner of the world, and with a population of only 1.3 million, Estonia has had an outsized influence in 20th- and 21st-century classical music, from symphonist Eduard Tubin, an exile from Estonia when it was a Soviet satellite, to the legendary “mystic Minimalist” Arvo Pärt. Tüür, born in 1959, is from the generation after Pärt, and like Tubin, who wrote 10 symphonies, he has been prolific in the form. He now is up to Symphony No. 8, with No. 9 in the pipeline.
The works of Tubin, Pärt, and Tüür have benefited from the advocacy of the eminent Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, as well as his conductor sons Paavo and Kristjan, who have done yeoman labor in keeping their nation’s music in front of international audiences. Tali is following in their footsteps. In Sarasota, her programming from Estonia so far has included four works by Pärt plus two by Tüür, one by Heino Eller, and one by Veljo Tormis, a leading choral composer who died in January.
More Estonian music is on the docket when the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir arrive Feb. 23-26 on its North American tour, which included a stop in Toronto covered by CVNA, to collaborate with the Sarasota Orchestra. With Tali conducting, the choir, orchestra, and soloists will perform Pärt’s Credo and the Mozart Requiem in four concerts.
Tüür, who attended rehearsals and performances of his symphony in Sarasota and Bradenton, admits to being puzzled over his country’s musical preeminence. “Maybe it is just a case of a people who are not very strong in economic terms, or in terms of having a powerful army, but whose greatness is to be strong in spiritual values and art,” he told me in an interview. “Maybe there is something in our subconscious, but I don’t really know. It’s a bit of a mystery to me.”
The Sixth Symphony is dedicated to Tali and the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, which gave the 2007 premiere in the Estonian capital Tallinn. She and the Nordic also performed it for a CD from ECM, the label that first championed Pärt and has put out seven releases of Tüür’s music. Her first performance of the work with the Sarasota Orchestra was at Bradenton’s Neel Performing Arts Center (an aging auditorium with poor acoustics where I heard it), followed by three more at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.
Under Tali’s expert guidance, the orchestra was impressively well prepared to play the 32-minute, single-movement work, which I found brilliant at times but also exhausting in its unrelenting intensity, until a surprising couple of passages near the end that came out of nowhere but seemed exactly right. Sibelius is an obvious inspiration for Baltic composers, but Bruckner came more to mind during Symphony No. 6 – perhaps Bruckner on psychedelics, given that Tüür, as a teenager, led an Estonian rock band called In Spe, and his heroes were progressive rockers like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Genesis.
The first 10 minutes or so of the symphony were dominated by huge blocks of complex chords, an incrementally shifting soundscape of orchestral tone colors, punctuated here and there by fluttery harp, piano, and winds, along with flights of high, keening violins and sonic blasts by brass and percussion. The symphony’s title Strata and the layered textures of the music suggest a geological meaning, as in the moving of massive tectonic plates far below the surface of the earth, but it is all pretty abstract.
Principal percussionist George Nickson came to the fore in the middle section with his busy, excellent mallet work on vibraphone, xylophone, and glockenspiel amid a virtual barrage of other percussion ranging from bongos to tom-tom to coiled spring. The surprise came in the last few minutes of the work when Tali cued a twinkling microtonal cluster, an otherworldy effect that I at first thought might be coming from a celesta (though I didn’t see one onstage). Instead, it turned out to be a track on a CD supplied with the Tüür score of a folk instrument called a kannel, played through four speakers set up in each corner of the hall. A chorus of this ethereal plucked zither music, adapted from a wailing song of the Seto indigenous people in southeastern Estonia, brought the symphony to a soft, shimmering close.
Tchaikovsky bracketed Tüür on the program. For the curtain raiser, concertmaster Daniel Jordan overcame some insecure intonation to channel his inner David Oistrakh in the late-Romantic Russian style of Glazunov’s arrangement of the “Mélodie“ from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher. In the second half of the program, Simon Trpčeski was the soloist for the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, and he turned in a muscular, brusquely virtuosic reading that was notable for his flashy traversal of the first movement’s cadenza and some wonderfully fleet little exchanges between pianist and orchestra in the finale.
Tüür’s latest CD comes out this month on the Ondine label, featuring Noesis, his double concerto for violin, clarinet and orchestra; the clarinet concerto Peregrinus Ecstaticus; and an instrumental elegy, Le poids des vies non vécues. Hannu Lintu conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Pekka Kuusisto, violin, and Christoffer Sundqvist, clarinet.
John Fleming writes for Musical America, Opera News, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.