Saturday 16 April 2016

Spring in Tallinn - new Estonian orchestral music

Anu Tali, Estonian Voices, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Anu Tali, Estonian Voices, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Maria Körvits, Mari Vihmand, Mirjam Tally, Ulo Krigul, Lepo Sumera; Anu Tali, Leho Karin, Estonian Voices, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Estonian Music Days at the Estonia Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2016
Five new works including three world premieres in this orchestral showcase of Estonian contemporary music

Anu Tali
Anu Tali
The Estonian Music Days is the oldest music festival in Estonia and was founded in 1979. This year under the artistic directorship of Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner the festival had the theme of Green Sound, bringing into the festival ideas of what it might mean to be green or ecological in music. There are around 60 new works being performed at the festival, with 30 premieres, and an opportunity to hear a range of Estonian composers from students through to the well established.

At the Estonia Concert Hall in Tallinn on Friday 15 April 2016, a concert by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Anu Tali, brought together music by composers born in 1950, in 1987 and a range between. The programme consisted of falling up into the bowl of sky by Maria Körvits, Floreo by Mari Vihmand (born 1967), Erosion for amplified cello, orchestra and electronics by Mirjam Tally (born 1976), Understandards by Ulo Krigul (born 1978) and Symphony No. 6 by Lepo Sumera (1950-2000). The orchestra was joined by Leho Karin (amplified cello), Estonian Voices (Kadri Voorand, Mikk Dede, Mirjam Dede, Maria Vä, Ramus Erismaa and Aar Kü), and Tammo Sumera (electronics and sound engineering).

The concert was preceded by the presentation of a new composers prize, the Au-Tasu award. It was sponsored by the LHV Bank, the first time an Estonian bank as provided this type of sponsorship and sufficiently newsworthy for the event to be recorded for an item on the main Friday evening news on Estonian television. Märt-Matis Lill, chairman of the Estonian Composers Union, presented the prize to Liisa Hirsch for Ascending Descending which premiered at last year's Estonian Music Days (see my review of the work's premiere).

Cellist Leho Karin
Cellist Leho Karin
The opening work in the programme was the premiere falling up into the bowl of sky by Maria Körvits which seems to have taken a fragment of poetry by Rumi as its inspiration. Written for large orchestra (the platform at the concert hall was very full indeed), the work started with pure atmospherics (blowing through the brass instruments, barely hear violins, percussion) with a constant beat in the bass. This developed with increasingly complex mix of layers, always with an interesting mix of timbres, into a gradual slow build up; there were some magical moments along the way such as clarinet and woodwind bird calls surrounded by rustling and twittering strings. Rather than Rumi's poetry, the music for me evoked the sound of the rainforest coming alive, reaching an intense climax and then dying away.

Floreo by Mari Vihmand was premiered in 1995; the work's title refers to the Latin 'I grow' though the composer admits that her original programme for the work was written after the music. There was more of a sense of tonality and musical material than in the previous work, but it also had the sense of a variety of textures building from nothing, with motifs floating out of the texture. With its sense of ebbing and flowing, climaxes followed by falling back and growing again, the piece seemed to be about the cycle of life. There were long breathed expressionist phrases in the strings, flurries of woodwind, all leading to a final climax which was full of interesting textures, all left in mid air at the end.

Both the first two pieces in the programme seemed to be from the same music-dramatic world, and to represent similar explorations of gesture and texture, with little in the way of development so that it was unfortunate that the third piece Erosion by Mirjam Tally explored a similar vein of thought. Tally used an amplified cello (played by Leho Karin), where Karin's regular cello had a pick-up on the tail-piece, which enabled her to write rather more subtly for the instrument without having to worry about balance problems. The opening, with it use of glissandos, heavily attacked notes and high string crossing on the cello contrasted with purely textural agitated passages in the orchestra, was striking enough but from then on Tally seemed to be content to repeat the material without ever seeming to develop and without, as far as I can see, any sense of the work's title Erosion. Perhaps the work would have come over better if the first half had been more varied in style, but as it was Maria Körvits piece stood out the most.

Electronics and lighting (Elo Liiv and Tammo Sumera) plus audience at the Estonia Concert Hall
Electronics and lighting (Elo Liiv and Tammo Sumera)
plus audience at the Estonia Concert Hall
For the first work in the second half we had a welcome change of gear and some striking new textures. Ulo Krigul's Understandards took a patchwork of text made from samples of texts from jazz standards, which Krigul had set for vocal ensemble (Estonian Voices using microphones) and orchestra. Krigul's own programme note made reference to Berio's Sinfonia but thankfully the music was certainly not a slavish imitation. Though in one movement, it fell into distinct sections and in each one Krigul explored particular gestures, each associated with a fragment of text so that the opening obsessed around The Sun whilst the closing obsessed over Fever. The performance from Estonian Voices was exemplary, and their vocal delivery and placement of the complex close harmonies was impressive, though the group did not seem to have agreed quite how engaged with the music they should be, whether to be cool or to be dramatically engaged. Kirgul used the orchestra (still large though smaller than in the first half) with admirably judged sparsity with big orchestral gestures interrupting the vocal ensemble but never overshadowing it. My first thought had been that the orchestra was a bit redundant, and could have been replaced by a smaller ensemble but perhaps the very restraint with which Krigul used his large forces was striking.
The final piece in the programme was premiered in 2000, only a few months before the composer's untimely death. Lepo Sumera died at the age of 50 and his Symphony No. 6 was his last completed work. It is in two movements, and in his programme note Sumera talked about only using two intervals (the second and the third), with the remained of the material using aleatoric techniques (something Sumera had done in his fifth symphony). In the first movement Andante furioso this took the form of alternation between furious tutti string passages (some loud, some soft) and more austere interruptions from woodwind, or from vibraphone. On first hearing, the tutti passages seemed aleatoric whilst the woodwind and vibraphone phrases seemed fully notated.

Estonian Voices, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Anu Tali
Estonian Voices, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Anu Tali
From this description the music might seem contrived, and whilst it perhaps was not quite symphonic, it was certainly intense, deeply felt and with a strong sense of development and direction. Ultimately there was something rather satisfying about Sumera's sound world, and the way he articulated the music and unlike much of the music in the first half, you felt Sumera was taking you on a journey. The second movement Andante was a more unified texture, starting with some lyrically transparent passages with a solo harp over sustained strings with odd woodwind flurries. Emotionally simple at first, it became clear that the music was not as sunny or as carefree as it first seemed, and the movement built into an enormously powerful climax, followed by an falling back to the transparency of the opening with an eerie final passage on the violins. This work made a strong effect on first hearing and is certainly something I would like to hear again (luckily Paavo Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra have recorded the piece on BIS), and there are five more symphonies, a cello concerto and much more to explore. (Interestingly, Tammo Sumera who was responsible for the electronics at the concert is the composer's son.)

The performance from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, under Anu Tali's expert and precise direction, was exemplary. A long evening of new works is a big ask for any orchestra and conductor, and here they brought together some strong technique along with a feel for the music which meant that the performances were full bodied and never tentative.

The concert was broadcast on Estonian Klassikaraadio and is available on demand on their website for four weeks.

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