The one opportunity to hear music for full orchestra at this year’s World Music Days took place on Friday evening at the Estonia Concert Hall, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts. The Estonian Music Days’ tradition of recent years has been to begin the Friday orchestral concert with the presentation of the Au-tasu award, given to the work by an Estonian composer premièred during the previous year deemed by a jury to be the best. In its 2016 inaugural year, one of the younger generation, Liisa Hirsch, took the prize, but since then the award seems to have become simply a celebration of Estonia’s most well-established senior composers: Toivo Tulev in 2017, Erkki-Sven Tüür in 2018, with this year’s winner being Helena Tulve. i’m not at all suggesting the compositions that won were not the best in that particular year, but it nonetheless seems a little troubling to see the award so quickly gravitate to the upper echelons of Estonian contemporary music. Arvo Pärt in 2020? That being said, though it didn’t win, special mention was given to a work that, to my mind, wasn’t only one of the best of last year but one of the best i’ve heard in the four years i’ve been attending the festival: Conatus by Liina Sumera. It’s a work i raved about it at its première last year, and while i haven’t yet heard all of the works shortlisted for this year’s award, it would have been entirely fitting if Sumera’s dazzling electronic work had taken the prize.
As in previous years, the concert itself was a typically impressive occasion. Not its introduction, though, an equal parts ridiculous and pointless bit of pseudo-Hollywood bluster by the late Eino Tamberg, the applause for which struggled even to attain the level of tepid. One of the most striking works on the programme was Lotta Wennäkoski‘s 2016 guitar concerto Susurrus. It was uncanny the way its material sounded almost like a ‘regular’ concerto but in which pretty much all of the pitch content had been erased. This led to an interesting dual engagement, both with the sounds on their own terms but also kind of ‘through’ them, using our imagination to flesh them out. The overall shape was more-or-less a conventional fast-slow-fast structure, the middle section of which introduced more demonstrable, almost melodic material. Even here, though, Wennäkoski kept the music at a distance, sounding all the more beautiful due to the way it kept slipping through our fingers, preventing us from indulging in it. The work’s brisker concluding section was if anything even more erased than the opening, reduced to a rhythmic framework or outline but one packed with fun and energy.
(As an anecdotal aside, it’s interesting to note the complete contrast between the way Susurrus was received and that of another work, Timo Steiner’s And then leave everything you’ve got and go… for piano and orchestra, premièred at the 2017 Estonian Music Days. Steiner’s music also involved a considerable amount of eroded material, some of it near-inaudible, making for a more than usually challenging listening experience. Which did not, it seems, go down well with the audience on that occasion. When reviewing this work for Bachtrack, the following sentences were cut from my text: “The startling rudeness of some members of the audience during this bravely provocative new work – laughing, whispering, checking their phones – left one in no doubt that Steiner was doing everything right. Estonia could do with a lot more of this.” Thankfully, Lotta Wennäkoski’s concerto was met with nothing of the kind. Perhaps Tallinn audiences are becoming better adjusted to the avant-garde.)
In some respects, Mayke Nas‘ Down the Rabbit-Hole exhibited something similar to Wennäkoski. There was again the sense at certain points of material and/or pitch that had been erased, in addition to being buried, distorted, contorted and trapped. This made the orchestra’s energetic actions feel strenuous, as if they were forcing to work something loose. One got the curious impression that this was what a composition might sound like if it were turned inside out, making the times when something more conventional happened (such as the appearance of beautiful, richly convoluted chords) seem like the accidental coalescence of disparate ideas; strange little moans and groans that emerged on various occasions added to the impression of things being locked within. It was a completely fascinating piece, one i’d like to hear again many more times. Best of all, though, was Ülo Krigul‘s worlds… break the soundness, receiving its première. Nothing else on the programme evinced with such vivid clarity the idea of a composer having fun – literally playing – with sound. We were taken through an ever-changing textural landscape where an extended sea of pitches veered off following their impacts, where dense clusters of rapidly-moving notes broke apart via creaking piano strings and a bass drum (a magical effect), and where rumbles and ethereality happily coexisted. Culminating in a strange coda that felt like inadvertently falling into a musical quotation (replete with an apparent V-I cadence in the horns), for all its playfulness and whimsy the piece turned out to be surprisingly moving.
As with most new music festivals, the majority of concerts at WMD 2019 were devoted to chamber music. Two concerts in particular brought together instruments with distinct yet tantalisingly sympathetic timbres. Una Corda is an Estonian trio featuring kannel (Kristi Mühling), harp (Liis Viira) and harpsichord (Ene Nael), and the concert they gave at the Estonian Academy of Sciences on Saturday afternoon featured several works that exploited the potential for close timbral relationships. The most unstoppable came from Mirjam Tally, whose Voolujoon [Streamline] sent the trio scampering at breakneck speed through dense clouds of quasi-improvisational gestures, pausing briefly for breath only then to gain massively in weight and exuberance. Pekka Jalkanen from Finland had reworked his 2016 piece November, originally for three Finnish kantele, for the Una Corda trio, who gave the première of this new arrangement. The first two of its three movements seemed simplistic, with more than a slight New Age vibe to them (it was hard not to think of Harold Budd), though the final movement was very much more substantial. Both its direction and the shape of its phrases became clearer, demonstrating a more dynamic ebb and flow, the trio seemingly all sharing the same material but individually differentiated, peppering the discourse with swooshing glissandi that managed never to sound cliché. Estonian composer Maria Kõrvits returned to her ongoing interest in cold, dark environments with Öö [Night], another first performance. Carefully, almost solemnly, the trio all communicated the same fundamental idea, its articulation shared among the players as if they were taking turns to put together sentences. Though essentially driven by a melodic impulse, Kõrvits’ material was laden with accents and grace note embellishments; furthermore, sometimes the trio were in exact unisons, more often not. The combined effect was hypnotic: discerning where melody ended and embellishment began became impossible, only clarified later on when a series of loud clusterbombs triggered an unexpected and emphatic climax. But there was something almost unnatural – certainly uncomfortable – about this outburst; as the trio withdrew again, it was here that the music seemed ultimately to want to reside, in an inner place of quiet and mystery. Gorgeous.
The following Tuesday, at the relatively newly-opened Arvo Pärt Centre in nearby Laulasmaa, kannel player Kristi Mühling returned to team up with Naoko Kikuchi on koto. Though more timbrally distinct from each other than the instruments in Una Corda, the duo nonetheless often overlapped and coalesced with each other. This found best expression where the composers had sought to explore intimacy. The world première of Märt-Matis Lill‘s April is in my mistress face took inspiration from a madrigal by Thomas Morley to create music not merely intimate but practically symbiotic. Sometimes it seemed as if Mühling and Kikuchi were two facets of a single voice singing to us; sometimes they appeared to be singing quietly to one another; and sometimes it was as if we were hearing two separate but closely-related interpretations of the same thing played simultaneously. It was mesmerising and lovely. In his 2014 work for kannel solo, Alla luna, Irish composer John Buckley managed to make Kristi Mühling’s presence in front of us feel like an illusion. Though we could see and hear her, the music emanating from her instrument sounded impressionistic, enigmatic and elusive. All of which only made the piece more enticing, enhanced by this curious paradox. Intimacy reached its most delicate extreme in Am Berge von Yoshino [On the Mount Yoshino] by Romanian Violeta Dinescu, composed in 2017. Now the duo were unquestionably playing entirely to each other, their material made up of what sounded like tiny fragments of song. Often, the intensity of their intimacy meant that their utterances were, from our perspective, almost inaudible. But that only served to indicate the intensity – even the passion – of their dialogue, which seemed to fill the entire space of the Arvo Pärt Centre’s concert hall even though it could barely be perceived.
As another anecdotal aside, i have to say how remarkable and overwhelming an experience it was to be finally standing within the Arvo Pärt Centre. Two years ago, i had stood in this same spot in the forest and looked out over what was then the early stages of a building site. Six months ago i was at the Estonian Embassy in London for the official launch of the Centre, being wowed by its descriptions, architectural blueprints and the first photographs to be released. It turned out that nothing had prepared me for the real thing, which is in so many ways a much bigger and more elegantly stunning construction than i had imagined. Whatever one may think about Arvo Pärt’s music, it seems a fitting space to celebrate the world’s most-played living composer. And i have to thank my dear friend Riin Eensalu, Programme Manager at the Centre, for agreeing instantly when i asked if it was possible to go up the not-yet-officially-opened tower, which turned out to be a whole lot taller than seemed possible from the ground. Looking out across the Baltic Sea, at a height almost twice that of the trees below, was unforgettable. Anyone wanting to study and research Arvo Pärt’s life and work could hardly do it in a more magnificent environment.