A Sea Change: Music of the Baltic Nations
Feb 21 at 7:30
South Main Baptist Church
4100 Main St.
Music has frequently been used to support a political agenda—think of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, dedicated to the King of Prussia, and subsequently used as a powerful anthem by Rhodesia, East Germany, West Germany, and currently, for the European Union. But how often has music helped spark a revolution?
When Houston Chamber Choir artistic director Robert Simpson first approached English conductor Paul Hillier about conducting a concert, he asked Hillier to build a dream program. “I said, ‘Paul, if you could only conduct one more concert, what would you want to do?’” Hillier decided to program a concert of music by living composers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, taking inspiration from the “Singing Revolution” of the late 1980s, when the Baltic nations rose up against Soviet rule.
Beginning in 1987, tens of thousands of people across the Baltic began coming together each night in public places like Estonia’s Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, to sing patriotic, anti-Soviet songs. Those gatherings formed the nucleus of the non-violent protest movement that forced Gorbachev to withdraw his troops, eventually leading to independence for the three nations.
It’s exactly the kind of unconventional program for which Simpson created the Houston Chamber Choir in 1995. He noted that few other choirs in the country would undertake such a challenge. “There’s a wonderful history that we’re celebrating in this concert of the human spirit coming together opposing oppression,” Simpson told me.
The best-known composer on the program is Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt. Listening to Pärt’s quiet, religious music—soft waves of rhythmic sound—you might wonder how he became such a controversial figure, not only as a participant in the Singing Revolution, but also in composition circles. With each lyrical repetition, small differences start to make their way to the surface—“It goes into your soul,” as Simpson put it.
The sacred mood carries through the rest of the program, which features two pieces from Pärt’s fellow Estonian Galina Grigorjeva’s 2008 choral work Nature Morte. Inspired by early European polyphony and liturgical music, Grigorjeva follows in Pärt’s footsteps, adding a few touches of her own. Nature Morte, based on the Russian-born American poet Joseph Brodsky’s poem of the same name, focuses on some of life’s most daunting conundrums: What is truth? What is just? Where is God?
Not everything in the concert will be quite so serene. Also on the program is Lithuanian minimalist composer Rytis Mažulis’s“The Dazzled Eye Lost Its Speech,” a piece comprising thousands of discrete notes sung in rapid, rhythmic succession by different choristers. “It is sung so fast that it sounds like something from another world, where the sounds are just coming at you from around the room,” Simpson marveled while describing the sound. “You’re not saying, ‘When is this going to end?’ You’re saying, ‘I hope this doesn’t stop!’”