Sunday, May 06, 2007

Estonian chamber choir - small is beautiful


'Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful' famously wrote E. F. Schumacher. Friday night's opening concert of the 2007 Norwich and Norfolk Festival by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Paul Hillier was small, both in forces and duration, and it certainly was beautiful. This was one of those rare evenings when the planets align. The programme of Nikolai Kedrov, Arvo Pärt, Tchaikovsky, Cyrillus Kreek and excerpts from Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil was sublime. The choir demonstrated their peerless authority in the Baltic repertoire, and Paul Hillier demonstrated why he has built such a reputation as a musician's conductor.

The venue was Norwich's far from small Norman cathedral, but despite the towering architecture this was very much a chamber performance where, refreshingly, individual lines did not take second place to overall effect. We had bought top price seats in the second row as we know from experience that separate lines become confused in the reverberant cathedral when heard from further down the nave. As a bonus our front seats also allowed us to observe Paul Hillier's unique taste in conducting footwear, he has certainly found a schumacher with style.

In his provaocative book, What We Really Do (The Musical Times ISBN 0954577701), another fine choral conductor, Tallis Scholars founder Peter Philips, argues that sacred choral music is best performed in modern concert halls because both the sound and the amenities are better. Despite this view the Estonian Choir hedged their bets on this current tour. Two of their four concerts are in modern halls, Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, and the superb new 1200 seater Perth Concert Hall in Scotland. Incidentally, both these magnificent looking and sounding concert halls were built in the last fifteen years, which is enduring evidence that, despite the gloom merchants, classical music is very much alive and kicking today.

The other two concerts by the Esonian visitors and their English conductor are in traditional churches in, Norwich and Edinburgh . At Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh it must have been a surprise for the choir to find themselves swapping the turbulent politics of 21st century Estonia for the turbulent politics of 21st century Scotland.

Performance venues are an essential part of live music-making, so are commissions for new music. I have already written here how Arvo Pärt's I am the true vine was commissioned by Norwich Cathedral in 1996. Credit should be given to the patrons of two more works by Pärt performed by the Estonian choir in the cathedral on Friday evening. Da pacem Domine was commissioned by that musical life-force Jordi Savall, while Bogoroditse dyevo (Mother of God and Virgin) was written for King's College Choir, Cambridge in 1990.

Those mentions of King's College Choir, Cambridge and the Mother of God and Virgin bring this overgrown path full circle. On Friday evening we were privileged to hear the Estonian choir in Norwich. The following afternoon we viewed the Balkan (not Baltic!) Icons exhibition at the Michaelhouse Centre in Cambridge, and the icon above of the Virgin Mary with infant Christ painted by the Serbian artist Todor Mitrovic in 2002 is from that exhibition. Do explore the images via this link, they are simply stunning. And from the immensely moving icons exhibition it was just a few steps to choral evensong in King's College Chapel.

E.F. Schumacher also wrote ~ 'Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful '. Amen to that.

We are now off to Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers followed by jazz from the Bobo Stenson Trio. If you can't be there why not read about Monteverdi in Cambridge?
My header image is from the Balkan Icons exhibition which is touring internationally. I will be featuring more images from this wonderful exhibition in the future. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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