Estonian voices bring two centuries of music to Sarasota.
Anu Tali, music director of the Sarasota Orchestra, brought some guests from her homeland of Estonia to perform with our homeland ensemble this past weekend. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir is a group of 25 singers who’ve conquered the straight tone technique and sound very much like the pure, young voices that seem to be all the rage in most of the world today. They’re well trained in style and technique, and they carry well over a large orchestra.
The program this weekend was devoted to music by the contemporary composer, Arvo Pärt, followed by the beloved “Requiem” by Mozart. Pärt did much of his studying in an Estonia that was under the strict hand of the Soviet Union; in fact this constricting force forced him to leave Estonia in 1980 for the more open atmosphere of West Berlin. He’s known primarily for his religious choral music, and his “Credo,” written in 1968, caused something of a scandal in the Soviet Union where he still lived at the time, because it combined not only a religious text, but also music that was romantic, tonal and Baroque. Clearly no-no’s in the USSR’s collective mind; music that was not to be approved by the Composers’ Union.
But conductor Neeme Järvi did approve it, and he must have held his breath, because that approval could easily have destroyed both his own career and Pärt’s. It pretty much ruined the composer, but Järvi got lucky and kept his position. Meanwhile, Pärt devoted most of what was left of his career to film music until he moved to West Germany.
The performance we heard of this massive— but only 12-minute —work, was outstanding in every way. Running the gamut from beautiful, romantic sounds at the beginning, to the chaos of what Pärt must have thought of the Soviet regime with screams, wild percussion and emotional upheavals, it finally evolved to the well-defined and healing sounds of Bach.
Orchestra pianist Jonathan Spivey took on the important, percussive sound of his instrument with freshness and spirit, while the rest of the Orchestra handled the stylistic quick-changes with ease, as did the chamber choir.
The Mozart “Requiem,” was one of the last pieces the composer ever wrote. It was finished by his student, Franz Xavier Süssmayer, and although others have tackled the notes Mozart left to finish the “Requiem” over the years (including Sarasota Music Fesitval’s Robert Levin), it’s the Süssmayer completion we most often hear.
As anyone who’s heard or performed this work will attest, it’s one of the best-loved pieces of choral literature. The international soloists at this performance were soprano Pureum Jo, mezzo Sofia Selowsy, tenor Miles Mykkanen and bass Sam Handley. They had an excellent blend among them and added some interesting ornaments here and there, but the standout singer was the soprano, Pureum Jo, who had a beautiful, rich sound that began the work with just the right polish needed.
The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sang with precision and stylistic understanding, but both they and the orchestra, under Tali, were particularly subdued, giving us a well-performed but somewhat inert performance. Perhaps it was the Van Wezel’s acoustics, but I felt it was more their straight tone, without vibrato, that made this “Requiem” so enervated. Whatever the reason, the “Requiem” didn’t have the brilliance and stimulation I’ve come to expect from this favorite.
Under any circumstances, the Lacrimosa (thought by some musicologists to be the last section of the work actually written by Mozart) was still tear-jerking. And the fitting encore at the conclusion of the concert, Mozart’s truly last work, “Ave Verum Corpus,” was so breathtakingly beautiful, it was worth the entire evening.