Shortly after gaining independence from Russia in 1991, Estonia ditched socialism and embraced capitalism. The result was a balanced budget, no public debt, and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, the little Baltic country also has the highest rate of irreligiosity in the world, with 75 percent of the population professing no religious faith.
Given that, what can explain the fact that far and away the most successful composer of sacred choral music in the world today is the Estonian Arvo Pärt?
Two things: First, whatever other Estonians believe, Pärt is a devout member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his faith suffuses his music. Second, Pärt discovered a way to compose that combines medieval modality with Romantic tonality and modern atonality. The combination creates a palpable sense of the inevitable entwined with the eternal, of an irresistible force fusing with an immovable object. Together, Pärt’s religious faith and compositional method have fashioned a body of sacred choral music that now figures prominently in the repertoire of choirs around the world.
The choir most closely connected with Pärt’s music is, of course, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. It was in large part the choir’s recordings of his sacred choral works for the German ECM label that helped establish Pärt’s international reputation, just as it was in large part its appearances here in Ann Arbor in 1995 and 1997 that helped establish Pärt’s local reputation.
For the choir’s return to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on Thursday, November 13, its program is split between works by Pärt and works by his younger countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. Led by Tönu Kaljuste and accompanied by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the Estonian choir will perform Tüür’s Passion and Requiem in the first half and Pärt’s Orient Occident for strings and Te Deum in the second half.
Kaljuste founded the choir in 1981 and served as its leader for twenty years; he still directs it frequently both on tour and at home. Known for its flawless intonation, faultless pronunciation, poised balances, cool sonorities, and smooth, round tone, the choir has had eight of its recordings nominated for Grammy awards—an amazing achievement for a group specializing in contemporary sacred music. But then, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is no ordinary group specializing in contemporary sacred music: it’s Estonian.
[Originally published in November, 2008.]
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