Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: E STuudio Youth Choir

by 5:4

In the wake of my experiences at this year’s Estonian Music Days, extended in my recent weekend of articles focusing on the country’s choral music, yesterday’s late evening concert at St Matthew’s Church in Cheltenham was a real treat. It featured a choir new to me, the E STuudio Youth Choir, formed in 2012 and based in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu. The concert was something of an ambassadorial occasion, marking the country’s presidency of the European Council and exploring a mixture of home-grown and international contemporary repertoire. Three conductors – Eliisa Sakarias, Jaanus Karlson and Külli Lokko, who was originally responsible for founding the choir – took turns in a programme that’s best described as a mixed bag of confections.

Put another way, if one thing characterised the thirteen pieces performed in the concert, it was a quality of sweetness, music that sought expression in varying degrees and interpretations of consonance. (While Estonia does, as i’ve written about previously, have a decidedly experimental side, it tends to rear its head less in choral music.) Arvo Pärt was of course well represented – one wonders if an Estonian choir will ever be so courageously far-sighted as to exclude Pärt from a concert programme – opening the evening with his short but well-known setting of the Marian hymn Bogoroditse Dyevo, followed by his much longer take on the Triodion. It was useful to have the pieces in this order, as Bogoroditse Dyevo makes the point well that there’s more to Pärt than just luxuriating in solemnity (if that’s not an oxymoron), the choir positively dancing through the hymn’s rushing material, playful and full of happiness, and treated here to the most transparently clear articulations. The Triodion, more trademark Pärt, posed the question of whether the similarity of utterance exhibited in the three odes worked to reduce or even nullify its intended effect. Yet if one regards it in the same way as separate portions of a common liturgy – surely the only way to regard them – the question more-or-less evaporates. Describing it like that may sound off-putting, but neither the music in this piece nor the choir’s rendition of it at any point suggested the kind of piousness that can render concert performances of sacred music so distasteful. Everything was measured, enabling Pärt’s subtle word-painting – particularly the second ode’s large-scale climax – to speak with real immediacy.

Less impressive were a pair of works by Pärt Uusberg, mainly due to his musical language, which was irritatingly and self-defeatingly conservative. In Mis on Inimene, a work for male voices, the result was four minutes of the blandest blah, though Antidolorosum managed partially to overcome this deficiency due to it’s emotional honesty. Setting words by Estonian poet Artur Alliksaar (who was also based in Tartu), Uusberg’s engagement with the text was palpable, and the coda of the piece, involving gravelly low pitches beneath overlapping, undulating figures, was really delicious, encapsulating the poem’s final line, “it turns more perfect with every moment”. Cyrillus Kreek, one of the composers i focused on last month, was represented in a short setting of lines from Psalms 1 and 2, Õnnis on Inimene (Blessed is the Man). Though it lacks the punch of some of Kreek’s other Psalm pieces, the way the verses oscillate back and forth – on chords IV and I, cadences continually feeling complete and incomplete – was hypnotic, all the more so due to the richness of Kreek’s writing within these harmonic strictures. As in his Psalm 137, this work was punctuated with ‘Alleluia’s, and it struck me that in both pieces these act as the emotional nub of their expressivity: Kreek gets most of the way through the verses, before the ‘Alleluia’ emphatically seals the sentiment.

The non-Estonian repertoire that E STuudio Youth Choir performed was all connected with the USA. At the most excruciating end were two pools of effluent from its most notorious peddler of choral kitsch, Eric Whitacre. Whatever one may think about Arvo Pärt’s music, whether you share his beliefs or not one can at least be confident in both their veracity and humility, directed externally. Whitacre, by total contrast, espouses an ideology of saccharinity, all calories and carbs, expressed with the most self-indulgent vainglory. Lux Aurumque, one of his more well-known works, was tough enough to stomach, but the assault he carried out on Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence was too much, an ill-judged execrable embarrassment that went beyond Whitacre’s usual brand of aural schmoozing into an exercise in pure onanism. This sort of thing should be done, if at all, in private.

Mercifully, the remaining US-related works were orders of magnitude more imaginative and effective. Moses Hogan‘s The Battle of Jericho was an exhilarating triumph – and one of the evening’s most crystal clear performances – while Z. Randall Stroope‘s The Conversion of Saul turned the members of the choir into a veritable platoon of soldiers, aggressive and accusing, punctuating their music with loud united foot stomps. Stroope structured the work as a diptych, however, and the second half offered an alternative to pugilism, sinking to soft squishy music that was somewhat disappointing, though made complete sense. Norway-born, US-based Ola Gjeilo‘s Unicornis captivator is essentially a contemporary carol, one that initially sets out with the boisterous frivolity one would expect. Similar to Stroope, though, Gjeilo tilts the piece on its axis halfway through as the text – a vivid allegory of Christ’s death and resurrection, filled with a symbolic menagerie of unicorns, vipers, pelicans, phoenixes, hydras and crocodiles, alongside the more familiar lamb and lion – starts to become more reflective, leading to altogether more meditative music. It’s a bold, unexpected manoeuvre, and the choir negotiated the extreme gear change perfectly, making it one of the most musically dramatic (albeit understated) moments of the evening.

The most telling piece in the concert came from one of Estonia’s most justly-renowned composers of choral music, Tõnu Kõrvits. The Night is Darkening Round Me, the third movement from Kõrvits’ song cycle Moorland Elegies, setting texts of Emily Brontë (reviewed last month), was treated to a beautifully atmospheric performance, one that fully lived up to the work’s pervading sense of mysterious foreboding. Soprano Marin Laes deserves special mention for her exquisitely lyrical solo, and the choir’s careful handling of Kõrvits’ oblique harmonies was riveting, creating music caught between stability and strangeness. Pure magic.

i’ve previously stated that it’s for its choral music that Estonia should be most loudly celebrated, and the E STuudio Youth Choir proved this, doing themselves and their country well and truly proud.

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