Choral singing is a vital component of Estonia's history — both in terms of culture and in terms of politics. Song has long been considered a "weapon of choice" for the people of this small Baltic country, from as far back as the 13th century when it was used in protest of German invaders, on up through the late 1980s when Estonians sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation (the centerpiece for the documentary film The Singing Revolution). Springing from this rich tradition of vocal music is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC).
Founded in 1981 by Tonu Kaljuste, the EPCC has grown to be one of the preeminent choirs of the world, with multiple well-respected recordings and a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance. Under the direction of Daniel Reuss, the 24-voice group is making a few rare U.S. appearances, including a stop in St. Paul on Friday, November 22. The performance, which will take place at 7:15 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Paul, will be broadcast live on Classical Minnesota Public Radio, starting at 7:30 p.m. Their program will focus upon the works of revered Estonian composers Veljo Tormis, Cyrillus Kreek, Mart Saar, and Arvo Pärt.
In addition, the EPCC will be presenting a newly commissioned piece by Edie Hill, internationally acclaimed composer-in-residence at the Schubert Club. The commission came about as a result of Classical MPR's 2012-2013 Choral Initiative — a series of on-air, online, and onstage programs to propel and enrich Minnesota's choral music community.
"I got a call from MPR," says Hill, "and I was told about the Choral Initiative. I thought, wow, that sounds wonderful. At the end of the phone call, I was invited to write a piece for the EPCC, and [was asked] would I be available, would it fit into my schedule. Of course it absolutely would!" Hill laughs. "This is one of the best choirs in the world."
The composer settled on a poem by Spanish Renaissance mystic St. John of the Cross as the text for her new work: Cancion de la Alma, or Song of the Soul. Hill feels that this was a good fit for the Estonians.
"I chose a text that lent itself to this kind of treatment...a windy, close, intricate counterpoint and harmonies. I think with a choir like this...it's complex, but with them I think it will sound effortless."
The choir may make it sound effortless, by Hill explains that composing this work was anything but. "Whatever, whomever I'm writing for, it never is effortless, and I don't want it to be effortless. If it is, I shouldn't be writing any more. For me, writing is an intensely personal experience. I feel like it's at the core, the center of who I am. Part of writing this piece was learning that about myself...and what I need to do in my life to make that happen and make that real."
Daniel Nass is a composer, collaborator, and commentator based in Nordeast Minneapolis.