In concert: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

November 21, 2008

Last night my wife and I attended a concert given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under the direction of their founder Tõnu Kaljuste.  The concert was held at St. Anne’s Anglican in Toronto, a beautiful church that I had not visited before.  The concert was sold out, and the 800 or so ticket holders packed the church to capacity.

I suppose that the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir might sound like an obscure group, but to lovers of choral music they are well known.  Personally I consider them one of the best choirs in the world, and I always try to hear them when they are in the neighbourhood. (This was my third time.)  On this tour they are 24 voices strong, and technically they were as good as ever: precise tuning even in extremely difficult music, with clear, strong voices.  There were some balance problems, but I believe this was more due to the acoustics of the church than the singing of the choir.

The EPCC is primarily known for its performances of contemporary music, so it was perhaps surprising that they opened the concert with an extended work by Antonio Vivaldi.  His Beatus Vir (RV597), for two choirs and two orchestras, was a piece that I had not heard before.  Last night the two choirs were arranged at some distance from one another, with the two orchestras pooled in the middle.  As ever, Vivaldi’s music was tuneful and enjoyable, and he made good use of the two choral groups, having them toss musical lines back and forth in conversation with one another.  The acoustics of the space were such that I found that the choir more spatially distant from me was noticeably more distant aurally, almost as though they were singing “off-stage”.  For Vivaldi this was not a great problem — an echo sounds good when it is faded and thinned — but it was to cause a few problems in later parts of the program.  In any case, Vivaldi’s wit came through wonderfully in his music: at the word dispersit, for instance, the choirs repeatedly echoed one another at ever decreasing volume, as though the musicians themselves were dispersing into the night, and at the verse which reads Peccator videbit, et irascetur (The wicked man will see, and be vexed) the poor tenor soloist was sent on a series of ridiculous (and no doubt extremely vexing) runs that would have overmastered a less stalwart singer.  The whole piece was a joy.

The second item on the program made a sharp contrast with the first.  Choir and orchestra performed three sections from Paul Frehner’s The Seven Last Words of ChristFrehner (b.1970), who teaches at the University of Western Ontario, is a young Canadian composer of whom I had not heard before.  He was present at the concert, and this performance may well have been a premiere (the notes do not specify).  The work was quite remarkable, both musically and textually.

They opened with the Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani section.  This cry of Christ comes from Psalm 22, and Frehner chose to include in his piece a number of passages from the same psalm, chanted mostly monophonically by the choir over a cacophony of groaning, agonized lower strings and shrieking, dissonant high strings.  It was brutal, ugly music, but arguably entirely fitting for this excruciating moment in Christ’s Passion.  The second section performed was I thirst; Frehner had the interesting idea to combine repeated intonations of the main text with the passage from St.John’s Gospel: “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.”  The interplay between these two declamations is theologically quite rich, and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on them.  The third and most dramatic section was It is finished, in which the turbulent orchestra gave way to a moment of repose, though not an entirely untroubled one.  The tenor section gently sang the Gregorian hymn Pange, lingua, which in this context sounded almost like a lullaby, while the choir and orchestra occasionally swelled to powerful statements of Christ’s words.  I wonder, though, why Frehner repeated the first stanza of the hymn several times rather than proceeding through the other stanzas, which I think would have been more effective.  The section ended on an incredible, heart-stopping chord for which the phrase “terrible beauty” might have been coined.

It was an impressive achievement.  I am sorry that we were only able to hear three of the seven sections.  What particularly impressed me was how Frehner entered fully into the spirit of these difficult texts, making music that engaged the agony of Christ without irony or self-consciousness.  I wish that I knew more about this composer and this piece: Was it commissioned?  If so, by whom?

The second half of the concert was devoted to the music of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  Pärt is my favourite living composer, and Kaljuste and the EPCC have had a long and fruitful relationship with him, giving several premieres of his music and making numerous recordings.  If you could pick one choir from whom to hear Pärt’s music, they would be it.  First up was Orient & Occident, for string orchestra.  This is not one of my favourite pieces by Pärt, and this performance did not change my mind: it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and I find his use of the string orchestra quite bland.  The same cannot be said, however, of the major piece that finished the concert: Pärt’s Te Deum.  It is a glorious hymn of praise that slowly, over the course of a half-hour, creates around itself an atmosphere of serene beauty.  The choir was divided into three groups, two singing on either side of the sanctuary, and one from the loft at the rear.  (In a friendlier acoustic this would have worked very well; as it was, it sometimes resulted in balance problems between the groups.)  I have listened to the choir’s recording of this piece many times, but never before had I clearly heard the quiet conclusion of the work: after the final “Amen”, the choir chants “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” several times as the orchestra subsides, and, then, one last slow burst of luminosity in the strings, as though the eyes are lifted up to see the sunrise, brings it to a close.  It was beautifully done.

The response was enthusiastic, and we were treated to a brief encore in the form of a lovely Estonian Christmas song, arranged for choir by someone whose name I did not quite catch (Was it Veljo Tormis?).  It was a wonderful evening; we went home happy.

The concert was organized by Soundstreams Canada.  May they live long and prosper.


Another view: Concert review from the Toronto Star

2 Responses to “In concert: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir”

  1. Neil Says:

    Just stumbled upon your post about The Seven Last Words of Christ. The work was commissioned but Soundstreams, the organization that presented the work. I hope you know about their “Power of Penderecki” concert coming up on January 30th and 31st. Its with the Polish Chamber Choir of Gdansk and certain to be a thriller. Google it if you need more info.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for letting me know who commissioned Frehner’s piece. Do you know if they commissioned that subject, or was that the composer’s choice?

    I hadn’t heard about the upcoming Penderecki concert, but, with a wee babe at home, I have trouble getting out at night lately. I’ll probably not be able to attend.

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