A month ago, I sang the praises of the Latvian choral culture. The concert program of the Europa Cantat festival (27.7. – 4.8.) in Tallinn, Estonia, gave a timely reminder that Estonia needs to be named in almost the same breath as Latvia, as far as choral singing goes. This is a nation of 1.3 million inhabitants and it boasts, in addition to an opera chorus, two full-time professional choirs (The National Male choir RAM and The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir), not to mention several other professional or semi-professional ensembles and choirs, of which at least Vox Clamantis, Estonian Voices and Collegium Musicale were heard during the festival. Even the youth choir scene is to an extent professionally organized. The Estonian television company supports both a girls’ and childrens’ choir; the Ellerhein girls’ choir is part of cultural centre in Tallinn; and the National Opera has a boys’ choir under its wings. All these have vocal coaches, sight-reading teacher and professional conductors. At the top, this is thriving choral culture.
Choral singing in Estonia also has the same kind of political relevance as in Latvia. The term Singing revolution actually most often refers specifically to Estonia, even though there were similar features in the independence process of the both Latvia and Lithuania. The Song Festival tradition here is at the same time a given, a point of pride and a tradition to be upheld and nurtured. In fact, if you go to the web page describing conducting studies at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, you will find that it motivates the need for such studies a) as a necessary force for conserving and developing the Song Festival tradition, b) training conductors to perform new Estonian music, and c) to continue the long line of Estonian excellence in choirs. [Compare this with the curriculum description of the Sibelius Academy. Not a word about anything other than high professional level training or a professional career.]
2 Skill vs expression
The feeling I got from the concerts at this festival is that despite the amateur mass movement and the professional scene being seen as one whole in the local Academy syllabus, there is a distinct cultural divide. The professional choirs all presented almost stereotypically professional programs and their main area of interest seemed to be technical – including vocal quality – rather than expressive. The text did not seem to be especially central to the performances, nor did emotionality.
This approach was really highlighted by a completely different approach, namely that of the Eurochoir – a project choir with ca. 40 singers between the ages of 18 and 30 from different parts of Europe. Although the Eurochoir was an excellent ensemble, it naturally ceded quite a lot of ground to the professional groups, especially in vocal skill. But what it did was to reach out to the audience. In addition to demanding choral works, conductors Maria van Niuekerken and Mikko Sidoroff had programmed more accessible works (to both the choir and the audience) and spent a lot of energy on emotional expression and reaching out to the audience through variation in the repertoire, positioning of the choir, and, quite simply, a stronger emotional approach.
It was extremely interesting to see the effect of this latter approach had on the audience. And you have to remember, this was an discerning audience that mostly consisted of choral singers. They absolutely lapped it up. When the choristers walked into the audience and picked someone to look at and sing to for a whole piece, tears started flowing.
Is there any way to combine this expressivity with the fantastic professional skill shown by many of the Estonian choirs? I believe there is, but it is not an easy combination. But, in any case, I think it something top level choirs need to think about. I just don’t think you can get away with acting like a professional orchestra (which I believe is the paragon professional choirs subconsciously try to emulate). Singing is such an innate and emotional affair that singing without emotion always tends to leave the audience a little cold. At the same time, it is a big ask to sing with emotion daily if it is your job – especially if the music is demanding. Perhaps the key is in the text. When we understand what we are singing, some emotionality seems to creep into our voice almost automatically. Another solution might be to remember to include more straightforward and accessible music in the program to allow for another dimension in the contact between the choir and the audience.
3 Heart and soul
The heart and soul of the Europa Cantat event is its workshops, or ateliers, as they were called. Each group worked on a chosen repertoire with a conductor every morning and then presented the results of its work in a concert. Some ateliers lasted four days and others the full eight days. There were four types of atelier: A ateliers free for anyone; B ateliers meant for singers who can sight-read and come prepared; C ateliers for auditioned choirs and individual singers; and D ateliers for chosen choirs (such as the many national youth choirs that took part in the event).
I led a B atelier with an excellent Hungarian colleague, Zoltán Kocsis-Holper. We had just above 100 singers with a reasonable voice distribution (37 S, 35 A, 17 T and 20 B). Our theme was Forgotten peoples and languages. The music posed no great demands, but singing in ancient Hungarian or in the Karelian language proved to be quite a challenge for our singers. We whittled down our original repertoire list to six pieces, which proved to be the right solution: by concert-time, the group pretty much mastered the pieces. On a professional scale, the performances were nothing to set the world alight (albeit they were not that bad, either), but for the singers both the process and the concert seemed to have been a good experience. The joy and the gratitude the singers expressed after the concert was very touching. Music is not only about excellence. It is also a means of self-expression, a building block for one’s identity and a way of being a social creature. For this reminder, I am indebted to these wise and warm people.