Estonian choir sings truly foreign music

by Christine Huggins | 11/5/03 6:00am

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is not your typical glee club, and the sound they produce is not characteristic of most choirs.

This was apparent from the first chord that rang out through Spaulding Auditorium last night -- a rich, deep, soul-piercing sound. The music that the group sings is, indeed, foreign to most American ears. For many, the choir conjures images of smoke saunas, potato pancakes and the magnificent architecture of Estonia's city of Tallinn. But for those in the audience who have never been to the Baltic, it was hard to conjure images for music foreign to most Western listeners.

One piece, "Suite de Lorca," com posed by Ein-ojuhani Rautavaara from Finland, was just odd. The sopranos were singing like fire engines, wailing around in their upper range, while the rest of the group droned on dissonant notes below. These screech-like movements were then cut off abruptly by complete silence. This extreme cacophony coupled with no sound at all was a disturbing contrast. When the group ended the piece with a "y-e-u-o-p" sound, like the turning off of a machine, it was downright shocking.

Some audience members looked confused. I know I was. Is this really what Baltic music sounds like? Do all these different fragments with no melody constitute a song? This was a question that lingered throughout the rest of the concert.

The talent of the group was never in question, but the musical selection was. Director and conductor Paul Hillier seemed to be living on the edge, choosing songs that pushed the bounds of normal "music making." You might think that he was attempting modern music. But "Suite de Lorca," composed in 1973, contrasted greatly with the traditional-sounding piece, "Gloria Patri," which was composed in 1988.

"Five Songs from Gloria Patri" was a redeeming piece for the group. Comprised of five different musical themes, this song was incredible.

The starting theme had the first melody of the night. The Choir sang in complex rounds, smooth voice parts meshing together, magically echoing musical lines. There could be no "weak link" at all in the choir. Every singer knew his or her part and had the talent it would take to sing this multi-part harmony.

The song built and built until all the voice parts came together, creating a dominating wall of sound. "Five Songs from Gloria Patri" had breaks of silence in between all five songs. These silences allowed the group to start new themes and to crescendo their dynamic once again. The dynamic control of the choir was incredible. Being able to switch from forcefully loud to eerily soft in an instant helped add to the almost other-worldly quality of the music.

The choir also had a wonderful tonal blend, which was apparent when they performed "Gloria from the Divine Service." When a choir can break off into solos or different voice parts with no instrumental support, and then have the entire group come in and still remain on pitch, it is a sign of incredible musicianship. These people were musicians in every sense.

After the concert, roses were passed out to each singer, the group got a standing ovation and the applause was thunderous.

But despite their obvious talent, I still couldn't see why the audience response was so enthusiastic. In speaking with several people who attended the show, I found that all of them had some previous appreciation for Baltic and Eastern European music either through study, travel or heritage.

However, for those without that kind of listening background, the concert was a mixed experience. It was easy to appreciate the talent, but the music itself was a little more difficult to enjoy.