Among a number of anniversaries, this year commemorates two distinct and unrelated centenaries – Estonian Independence and the birth of the US composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Both events are being highlighted at the National Concert Hall next week through the return of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) on January 31 and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on February 1.
Estonia has borne long periods of foreign occupation by variously Germans, Danes, Swedes and Russians. However, following a ‘national reawakening’, something their neighbouring Finns experienced as well, Estonia became independent on February 24, 1918.
Further oppression occurred during and post World War II but Estonian autonomy was finally restored on August 20, 1991 with the country joining the EU on May 1, 2004.
Realising his country’s remarkable choral tradition, Tallinn-born Téanu Kaljuste formed the exceptionally versatile EPCC in 1981. Remaining in charge until 2001, he was followed by, among others, Paul Hillier, currently artistic director of Chamber Choir Ireland. Since 2014 Kaspars Putnins, who will conduct the choir here, has been its director.
EPCC’s performances have garnered critical acclaim across the globe with its repertoire spanning from Gregorian chant to the present day. Not surprisingly, the choir’s programme offers music covering the past century by primarily its own composers with pride of place going to Arvo Pärt (b. 1936) much of whose vocal music has been written exclusively for the particular talents of the group.
Among other composers, in mainly religious works at the NCH, comes Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962). Noted for his expressive psalm settings, with their unmistakable folk tinges and his carefully shaded choral colouring, EPCC includes one of these – Onnis on inimeme (Blessed is the man) – in its concert.
Under Soviet scrutiny, some of the music of Veljo Tormis (1920-2017) was banned but, because folk elements were fundamental to his style, the censors accepted many of his compositions without demur. His Curse upon Iron, an allegory about the evils of war, dating from 1972, and his slightly earlier St John’s Song represent Tormis here.
Although born in Crimea in 1962, Galina Grigorjeva studied in both St Petersburg and Tallinn where she eventually made her home. Her choral work is closely linked to Slavonic sacred music and early European polyphony and EPCC has chosen her Nox Vitae, completed in 2011, for its NCH programme.
There is also an Irish input with two pieces – Pie Jesu and Agnus Dei – by Conor O’Reilly (b. 1967). With his music recorded and performed internationally, the composer has worked with leading choral conductors including EPCC’s Tönu Kaljuste and Kaspars Putnié. O’Reilly’s Pie Jesu has been described as “two minutes of near-perfect tranquillity”.
English conductor Roderick Dunk leads the RTÉCO’s Bernstein celebrations. Dipping into several of the composer’s Broadway hits, the programme includes excerpts from On the Town (1944), Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957). Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 18, 1918, Bernstein was director of the New York Philharmonic for many years, and straddled the contrasting worlds of serious and popular music with unusual panache.