World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

by 5:4
11 minutes read

Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating.

However, magic did occur elsewhere in these concerts. In the Dome Church, situated at the highest point in Tallinn, Estonian chamber choir Collegium Musicale gave a superbly engaging performance of Futile Spells by Canadian Gabriel Dharmoo. The title says it all: Dharmoo’s material appeared to be doing two things at once: trying to bring into existence a notional, imaginary form of ancient, ritualised spell-casting music, while at the same time questioning not just the possibility of this but the human impulse to ‘need’ such devices in the first place. The music directly acknowledged its own what we might call ‘anthropologising effect’, actively vocalising the “desperate, vain and futile attempts to connect with the invisible”. Unconventional vocal techniques melded with body percussion to construct a mesmerising, bewildering spectacle that disarmingly embodied confidence and uncertainty, not unlike reading the words of a supposedly powerful spell in a language no-one understands. The piece found meaning in its very questioning of how and where we seek for meaning in our lives and actions, and whether or not we can recognise something ‘magical’ (however that word is defined) when it occurs, and indeed whether or not we were the cause. It was all deeply thought-provoking.

The following concert, in the peerless acoustic of Tallinn’s Niguliste church, featured the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Two works made a strong impact through the ways they respectively harnessed simplicity and nebulosity. Without overtly straying beyond harmonic and performative conventions, Credo by Slovakian Lukáš Borzík practically crackled with electricity, most intensely when its harmonies were lightly tilted in oblique ways, which thankfully was more often than not. UK composer Thomas Simaku initially set up a flat sonic environment in his setting of Sappho La leggiadra luna, before greatly expanding the music into a climactic, impossible-to-parse cloud of pure radiance. The effect of this burst was equally hard to decipher: after this, was it everything about the rest of the piece that felt different? Or was it i who felt different? The most gorgeous and memorable music in the concert came from Helena Tulve, who turned to German poets Paul Celan and Hilde Domin for her two Nächtliche Gesänge [Nocturnal Songs], receiving their first performance. The fact that the second of the two songs,’Zärtliche Nacht’ [Gentle Night], though beautiful was somewhat less involving, was no doubt due to the power of the first. In ‘Nachts wenn das Pendel der Liebe schwingt’ [At night, when the pendulum of love swings], Tulve subjected Celan’s intimate text to convoluted homophony, with an outer sense of order – even elegance – surrounding a welter of inner detail and movement. The most lovely and affecting moments (which brought to mind Tulve’s previous choral work You and I) were when Tulve would alight upon, and become seemingly fixated with, a single word or chord, lingering on them in an apparent suspended reverie while the music continued to move within. Together with a general sense of almost passive compositional intent, its harmonies coming into existence through the simple coalescence of its roaming pitches, this was choral music at its most subtle best.

But there was more to come – a lot more. A couple of days later, at St John’s Church in the southern city of Tartu, the Latvian Radio Choir gave what was, in hindsight, the most convincing overall programme of choral music. In a similar way to Gabriel Dharmoo, one of the choir’s compatriots, Mārtiņš Viļums, tapped into something primordial in his creation myth-inspired work for 24 voices Abar panjom ardīg abāg gāw ēk-dād kard [On the Conflict Waged with the Primeval Ox]. Built on the incongruous pairing of ebullient gusto over a dronal foundation, the music had a distinctly archaic flavour which spilled over to elements of ritual, with accented page turns and the solemn presence of a cymbal. Though it was disorienting at the time, the work’s subsequent dissolve into an incoherent mix of sung and aspirated articulations only reinforced its (in the best sense) anachronistic quality. Though composed in 2010, it was possible to be convinced it could have dated back thousands of years. The highlight of the evening was Nirvana by Serbian Jug K. Marković. Setting a lengthy text by poet Vladislav Petković Dis, Nirvana was utterly remarkable, as if Marković had tried to make music out of vapour, its notes constantly drifting up, down and away. Somehow, Marković marshalled them into a powerful tutti texture, though even here stability was coloured by the ongoing slip-sliding of its elements, particularly in higher registers, leading to some wonderful complex clusters. But it was so much more than a mere litany of interesting effects. Marković’s engagement with the text – which, despite its title, recounts not an idyll but an altogether more emotionally convoluted encounter with the dead (the tone of which – though not the sentiment – was redolent of James ‘B.V.’ Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night) – governed everything: the spirit-like vaporous material; the shifting nature of the choir’s formations, breaking apart and reforming; the juxtaposition of contemporary and timeless ideas; and the strange kind of broken chant Marković devised for the final quatrain, simultaneously intimate yet overwhelming, deeply unsettling but moving.

Another take on death came the following day, back at the Dome Church, in Vox Clamantis’ performance of Agnus Dei / Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Australian Paul Stanhope. Stanhope’s melding of the two texts was seamless and beautifully judged in the way it moved back-and-forth between them. His writing was poignant, delicate for intimacy, clustered at its climaxes, never maudlin or melancholic, projecting instead an effective, affecting joy. The world première of Seesama meri [The Same Sea] by Estonian Evelin Seppar took a sparse but evocative text by Jaan Kaplinski as the basis for the most sumptuous choral writing, with ravishing harmonies and enthralling shifts of register and tension, especially at its climactic end. At first glance the text suggested the piece might prove elusive or distant, but Seppar’s stunning music made it impossible to be indifferent or uninvolved.

An apparent desire to unite a sense of ancient and modern in many of the choral works arguably found its most astonishing expression in the work that brought to an end Wednesday evening’s concert given at the Kultuurikatel by the Estonian National Male Choir. Earlier, they had got caught up in seemingly never final harmonic movement in the world première of Prayer by Finland’s Vladimir Agopov, a work that benefited greatly from the complete lack of reverb in the space, clarifying the proximity of the voices both to each other and to us, creating a moving confessional atmosphere. But all memories of pretty much anything else were instantly wiped by the frankly jaw-dropping spectacle of Veljo TormisPikse litaania [Litany to Thunder]. Forget the notion of a rain dance, this was a full-blooded, testosterone-fuelled, sweat-drenched invocation and celebration of the power of thunder, of which singing formed only a part of its elemental passion. Extending to wild physicality in the tenor and bass soloists as well as the whole choir – and even their irrepressible conductor Mikk Üleoja – and given both gravitas and boosts of power from a huge bass drum, this may well be the most breathlessly exhilarating choral work i’ve ever experienced. Walking out of the Kulturrikatel after the concert, there was little doubt where all the clouds had come from; frankly, it seemed miraculous the sky hadn’t been ripped apart in response.

It’s taken four lengthy articles to attempt to get to grips with what happened at the World Music Days, and in many ways i’ve still only scratched the surface. At the time, it seemed like too much – far too much – to take in properly, but the most memorable music (good, bad and ugly) has a way of worrying its way into your subconscious and continuing to play on your mind and emotions. As i said in my opening article, being my first experience of a World Music Days, i’ve no idea whether its unstoppable conveyor belt / juggernaut approach to presenting music is typical, but perhaps it’s churlish to complain. It could definitely have been planned a lot better, but that’s down to the Estonian Music Days organisers rather than the ISCM. One way or the other, we all survived.

In my introduction to this series of articles, i spoke of the Soviet-built Linnahall as being Tallinn’s ‘other’, the legacy of an unwanted alien intrusion, and i pondered to what extent the EMD and WMD would sit in sympathy or antipathy to each other. At an early point during the festival, it seemed to me that the global diversity exhibited in the WMD programme might be the ‘other’ to Estonia’s more measured and inward-looking creative focus. Yet in the end – notwithstanding both the outward gaze and/or the wonders created by of some of its composers – i can’t help wondering whether it was much of the Estonian music that felt like the ‘other’ to the rest of the world, an ‘other’ that, if it’s not careful, could come to be regarded as creatively diffident, closed-off and self-absorbed. Considering the glowing terms in which i’ve often written about Estonian contemporary music, those words perhaps sound unduly harsh. But in its celebration of global musical diversity, the World Music Days inevitably shines a spotlight on the host country’s own contribution to that diversity. There’s a very great deal Estonia has to offer, and – dare i say it – a great deal it can learn from the rest of the world. The doors are clearly open, yet it’s hard not to question the extent to which interest and interaction are genuinely flowing through them.

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