Sunday, January 18, 2009

Goings On About the Baltic Region

Paul Hillier, famed British choral guy, was in town to conduct the Yale Schola Cantorum last night in an all-contemporary, all-Baltic program (Hillier spent much of this decade conducting the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir). The chorus is, as you can pretty much bank on around here, an excellent student ensemble, and they delivered on a selection of variously resonant works. It's a fun sound-world to hang around in for an evening -- modern choral music tends to highlight subtle contrasts in textures and complexly consonant harmonies.

The first item was a Veljo Tormis setting from the Finnish Kalevala that Hillier, intriguingly, had refitted with text from Longfellow's Hiawatha. Hillier noted in the program that he believed the text needed to be comprehensible both for choir and audience for the music to have full power. The gambit worked, both in substance and sensibility: Tormis (who's Estonian) dwells a lot on folk materials from near-disappeared cultures, so the Native American milieu (even via Longfellow) is a natural fit. (Curiously modal folk-like music tends to transpose well enough, too, if you're not holding it up for authenticity.) The work begins by establishing a repeating, rhythmic background, then overlays a narrative ribbon of melody traded off between two female soloists; later on, as the work peaks, a chorale-like element joins in, and gradually the work winds back down.

Arvo Pärt's 1989 Magnificat closed the concert, lucid and appealing. The man can thread together delicate lines incredibly well, but I do miss his familiar bell-like textures in this piece.

The real discovery was a Lux Aeterna from 2004 by a Lithuanian composer, Vaclovas Augustinas, a slow, liquid piece (must have been about 12 minutes long) drawing from minimalist pools of muted major-key harmony. If you can imagine a temperamental mixture of the slow parts of Adams's Harmonium and contemporary early-music-throwbacks, that might get you part of the way there. Suffice it to say it was beautiful throughout and I immediately wanted to hear it again, although that does not seem like an immediately likely prospect.

Hillier recorded a three-CD series of Baltic repertoire with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir for the Harmonia Mundi label; I haven't heard these but I'm very curious about them now.


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