The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Artistic Director Kaspars Putniņš
February 9 – 21, 2017
Choir of 28

A sold-out Carnegie Hall classical choral concert doesn’t happen every day, but when the Estonian choir came to town last June, they created just that. It was a culmination of sorts for these regular visitors to the most prestigious stages in the U.S. and Europe. Now they return for their 10th tour to perform Tchaikovsky’s Vespers and more from northern Europe, with newly-named artistic director Kaspars Putnins conducting. Mr. Putnins has led choral concets at Lincoln Centre, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, Berliner Philharmonie and Konzerthaus, Cité de la musique in Paris, Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, Dresdner Frauenkirche etc.

"so wondrously talented a group of singers… The selections and the performances were so fine that they left you feeling like an ingrate, greedily hungry for more." The New York Times

Music In MP3 Format
Arvo Pärt Salve Regina from Harmonia Mundi CD 907730
(Opens with most MP3 players, including Quicktime which you can download for free)

Publicity Photos


The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) is one of the best-known choirs in the world. The EPCC was founded by Tõnu Kaljuste in 1981, who was the artistic director and chief conductor for twenty years. In 2001–2007, the English musician Paul Hillier took over; between the years 2008–2013 the artistic director and chief conductor was Daniel Reuss. In the fall of 2014, Latvian Kaspars Putnins assumes the title of Artistic Director.

The repertoire of the choir extends from Gregorian chant and baroque to the music of the 21th century, ever special focus on the work of Estonian composers (Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Galina Grigoryeva, Toivo Tulev, Tõnu Kõrvits, Helena Tulve) and introducing it to the world. Each season the choir gives about 60–70 concerts in Estonia and abroad.

The EPCC has cooperated with a number of outstanding conductors and orchestras – Claudio Abbado, Helmuth Rilling, Eric Ericson, Ward Swingle, Neeme Järvi, Paavo Järvi, Nikolai Alekseyev, Olari Elts, Andrew Lawrence-King, Roland Böer, Frieder Bernius, Stephen Layton, Marc Minkowski, Christoph Poppen, Sir Colin Davis, Louis Langree, Paul McCreesh; with Norwegian, Australian, Lithuanian, Prague and Stuttgardt Chamber Orchestras, London Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Berlin Rundfunk Orchestra, Concerto Copenhagen, Concerto Palatino, Salzburg Camerata, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, London Symphony Orchestra, Basel Chamber Orchestra and with Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.

The EPCC has been a welcome guest at numerous music festivals and outstanding venues all over the world, for instance at BBC Proms, Mozartwoche, Abu Gosh Music Festival, Hong Kong Arts Festival, Moscow Easter Festival, Musikfest Bremen, Salzburg Festspiele, Edinburgh International Festival, Festival Aix-en-Provence, International Cervantino Festival, Vale of Glamorgan, Bergen International Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Sydney Opera House, Wiener Konzerthaus, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Lincoln Center in New York etc.

Another important aspect in the choir’s life is recording music (for ECM, Virgin Classics, Carus, Harmonia Mundi, Ondine), resulting in award-winning CDs. EPCC recordings have won twice GRAMMY-Award for Best Choral Performance: in 2007 for the album Arvo Pärt. Da Pacem (conductor Paul Hillier, Harmonia Mundi) and in 2014 Arvo Pärt. Adam’s Lament (conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, ECM). All in all, the choir has 14 Grammy nominations with the works by Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür and the music of Nordic countries. The EPCC recordings have won also the award Diapason d’or, Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Danish Music Award etc.

Kaspars Putniņš (1966) is a choir conductor, and producer well known internationally. Conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir since 1992. In 1994, he initiated the Latvian Radio Chamber Singers – an ensemble of soloists, the members of Latvian Radio Choir. The Chamber Singers works as an innovative musical and sonic laboratory for the choir itself: it has greatly contributed to the unique international fame of the Latvian Radio Choir. The projects initiated by Putniņš’ have involved frequent and fruitful collaboration with the artists representing drama and visual arts. His ideas have been developed into multimedia shows like Black Over Red and The Book of Your Silence (both with Scotland Theatre Cryptic), the electro-acoustic forest walk The Tale of Kurbads, Press to Play a. o. Kaspars Putniņš and his colleagues are especially interested in the modern polyphonic vocal music, electro-acoustic music and novel vocal techniques. A number of composers have written new compositions encouraged by him – among them Gavin Bryars, Maija Einfelde, Karin Rehnqvist, Toivo Tulev, Lasse Thoresen and Mārtiņš Viļums among many others. He regularly appears as a guest conductor with leading European choirs such as the BBC Singers, RIAS Kammerchor, Netherlands Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio Choir, Flemish Radio Choir and others.

Kaspars Putniņš graduated from the Vītols Latvian Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. He is busy lecturing and frequently is engaged as a member of international juries. Putniņš is the recipient of the Latvian Grand Music Award and the Award of the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia for Achievement in Culture and Science. He has conducted at Lincoln Center in New York, Muziekgebouw of Amsterdam, Berliner Philharmonie and Konzerthaus, Cité de la musique in Paris, Berwaldhallen in Stockholm, Dresdner Frauenkirche etc.


CLICK to read:


An Affirmation of Faith at Carnegie Hall

Diverse Disciples Flock to an Arvo Pärt Tribute


Photo Tonu Kaljuste conducting two Estonian ensembles on Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Orthodox priests in black robes and conical caps rubbed shoulders with pop stars and actors, including Björk, Antony Hegarty and Keanu Reeves, at Carnegie Hall on Saturday at a sold-out concert of music by Arvo Pärt. No other living composer has so fervent a following or such a diverse group of fans. When Mr. Pärt, bearded, frail and smiling shyly, took a bow at the end of the evening — this was his first visit to New York in 30 years — the roar that greeted him seemed unanimous.

What is it about Mr. Pärt’s quiet, austere compositions that stirs such passions? It’s a question at the heart of the Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, which painstakingly prepared a current series of concerts devoted to the composer and panel discussions on the Eastern Orthodox spiritual traditions that feed his music. The focus of Saturday’s concert was the sacred choral works with which this Estonian composer, now 78, has affirmed that faith in recent years. But a meditative quality suffuses even his purely instrumental works.

The evening opened with two early examples of these from “Tabula Rasa,” the 1984 ECM recording that brought Mr. Pärt international fame: the lightly pulsating “Fratres,” in a version for violin, string orchestra and percussion, with Harry Traksmann ably performing the solo part, and the elegiac “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” The Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted with authority and grace by Tonu Kaljuste, brought out the clarity of the harmonic progressions in these deceptively simple pieces, as well as the gradual buildup of sonic texture and emotional weight that makes them so riveting.

The first-rate Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir joined the orchestra for the remainder of the program. Their performance of “Adam’s Lament” was emotionally devastating, traversing expressions of grief, bitter anger and hope. In “Salve Regina,” a celesta joined the choir and string orchestra, adding a touch of radiance to what is otherwise a private, almost reticent affirmation of faith.

For the Te Deum, the choir divided into three spatially separated groups, and a wind harp and a piano lent atmospheric touches to the orchestration. Mr. Pärt’s setting of the liturgy is strikingly different from the brilliant Te Deums of previous centuries, in which the glorification of God is confidently expected to reflect back on the performer and patron. Here, reverence is expressed as a gentle, devotional ritual, its methodically layered harmonies resembling the act of applying tiny flakes of gold leaf to a Madonna.

A version of this review appears in print on June 4, 2014, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: An Affirmation of Faith at Carnegie Hall.


Into the Sanctum With a Master of Awe and Mysticism

Arvo Pärt’s ‘Kanon Pokajanen,’ at the Met


Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir Robust sound and plaintive whispers: The choir performing Arvo Pärt’s “Kanon Pokajanen” on Monday evening in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Arvo Pärt at the concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Composers are inspired by myriad sources, including a particular event, emotion, person or landscape. The prime inspiration of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, however, was suppressed for a long stretch of his career. Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Pärt, a convert to the Eastern Orthodox faith, wrote works whose religious character irked the Soviet authorities at a time when the official credo was atheism.

Religion and composition have been intertwined throughout Mr. Pärt’s career, a synthesis that is being explored by the series of Arvo Pärt Project concerts. The composer attended an alluring performance of his “Kanon Pokajanen” (“Canon of Repentance”) on Monday evening at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum, streamed live by the Met and broadcast live on WQXR.

The Kanon was commissioned to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral and received its premiere there in 1998, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tonu Kaljuste, who also led the choir here. Written almost exclusively in D minor and sung in Church Slavonic, the music is set to the text of an Orthodox hymn called the “Canon of Repentance to Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The work incorporates Mr. Pärt’s signature technique of tintinnabuli, named for the Latin word for bells and developed from Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian and Russian chant.

The singers sat in a circle, rendering the work with a power and purity of tone that fully revealed its mystical, serene qualities. Throughout, the choir vividly illuminated the various choral timbres of the piece, which range from the robust, full choral sound of the opening to plaintive interludes featuring the resonant low male voices or the whisper of the upper voices alone. During one section the sopranos soared over a rumbling bass pedal point; in another, high dissonant harmonies proved striking.

The audience responded with a standing ovation as Mr. Pärt took his bows with the musicians.
A version of this review appears in print on June 4, 2014, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: Into the Sanctum With a Master of Awe and Mysticism.


Washington Post May 30, 2014

Arvo Pärt provides intimate performance of his minimalist music at Phillips Collection

By Stephen Brookes, Published: May 30 E-mail the writer

The remarkable Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — whose spare and almost mystical music has been embraced by an audience far beyond the usual classical circles — has had a triumphant run in Washington this week. After a hugely successful concert of orchestral and choral works at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, Pärt returned on Thursday to the Phillips Collection for a more intimate performance of his chamber music — nearly a dozen works that, despite their modest size, seemed to evoke the same aura of quiet majesty, the same sense of austere spirituality, and the same purity of expression as his large-scale music.

That’s no easy task. But as the evening unfolded — sketching an arc from the pathbreaking “Für Alina” from 1976, to the premiere of his newest work, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” — it was clear that Pärt’s music thrives on being pared to its essentials, becoming all the more powerful for it. Pärt is often labeled (by admirers and detractors alike) as a “holy minimalist,” but it’s an apt title. In “Für Alina,” for example, he built a sense of limitless, light-filled space with only the simplest of musical materials, and in every work on the program he seemed to find a universe in even the smallest grain of musical sand.
That held true throughout the evening, from the tender “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” (in a deeply felt reading by pianist Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann) to the radiant “Vater unser,” sung by alto Iris Oja. There were a few familiar works, including “Spiegel im Spiegel” (now so iconic it’s even been quoted in “The Simpsons”) and “Fratres” (heard here for violin and piano, in contrast to the orchestral version at the Kennedy Center), but less-familiar pieces such as “Mozart-Adagio” — a stunning arrangement of the second movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in F Major, K. 280 — and the relatively dark and dissonant “Es sang vor langen jahren,” showed off aspects of Pärt’s musical personality that only deepened the interest of his music.

Brookes is a freelance writer.


Richard Termine for The New York Times

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir flanking the majestic organ at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Music Review | Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Folkish Sounds of Estonia, With a Dash of Rachmaninoff


Published: March 21, 2006

The program was devoted largely to music of Arvo Pärt, and on the strength of it, you might have wished for more. On the other hand, the mere four numbers from Rachmaninoff's glorious Vespers whetted the appetite for the whole work. You might even have wished for more music by Cyrillus Kreek on the basis of his "Five Religious Folk Songs."

It was that kind of concert, by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Sunday afternoon. The selections and the performances were so fine that they left you feeling like an ingrate, greedily hungry for more.

Happily, more is available on CD's from Harmonia Mundi France, or will be. Several of the Pärt pieces performed on Sunday here and others are to be released in September. Mr. Hillier's recording of the complete Rachmaninoff Vespers appeared last year.

What is always striking about Mr. Pärt's music is its originality, and that was especially apparent here in "Dopo la Vittoria" ("After the Complete Victory," 1997), to a text from Archbishop Philaret's "History of Church Singers and Chants," of 1902, which tells of the creation of hymns by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Straight, mundane historical narrative is presented in a joyous, jogging storytelling mode, and the quotations from the hymns themselves soar to transcendent heights.

Mr. Pärt's originality was also apparent in two older organ works, deftly played by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. "Annum per Annum" (1980), a charming set of variations, begins with a sustained swooning — ultimately, wheezing — decrescendo and ends with a briefer opposite: a triumphant swelling statement of D major.

Remarkably, Rachmaninoff's Vespers, scarcely known in the West a few decades ago, has become almost standard repertory. Dennis Keene and the Voices of Ascension gave a superbly polished account of substantial excerpts at the Church of the Ascension less than a month ago, and the next night Stefan Parkman and the Academy Chamber Choir of Uppsala, Sweden, presented a grippingly theatrical performance of the whole work, also at St. Ignatius.

Mr. Hillier's excerpts were just what you might expect from one of the finest choral conductors of the day with so wondrously talented a group of singers (27 strong). Whatever voices were heard individually were of soloist caliber, and Iris Oja, a mezzo-soprano, was superb in her extended solo, rendered with earth-motherly warmth.

The folkish vein of Kreek's Estonian songs carried into an encore by Mart Saar, another Estonian: "Why Are You Weeping, Oak Tree?




Monday, March 20, 2006; C05

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Many spent Friday night celebrating real or imagined Irish heritage, but at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the world-renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir turned its talents toward music from its home country. Under artistic director Paul Hillier and with organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, the choir's performances inspired a transporting awe, hard to find no matter where you're from.

The choir did sing some non-Estonian music, specifically excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil." Those who know Rachmaninoff as Mr. Big Tune will be surprised by this rapt devotional work of Russian Orthodox harmonies and complex vocal techniques. The choir realized every detail of the composer's conception, with perfect blending up and down the tonal spectrum and the kind of virtuosity that makes everything sound easy.

These same virtues shone in the native Estonian works as well: Cyrillus Kreek's imaginative, loving arrangements of five Estonian religious folk songs, and five separate choral pieces by Arvo Part, whose spare harmonies and hypnotic textures have made him Estonia's most famous composer. (Besides providing accompaniment, organist Bowers-Broadbent also soloed in two intriguing Part works.)

The choir's flawless intonation, pure, thrilling tone, and careful attention to text and structure brought out the surprising narrative energy and ebullience of Part's "Dopo la Vittoria," the riveting dissonances in "Nunc Dimittis" and the harmonic ebb and flow of "Da Pacem Domine." At the close of the program, as each word rang out clear and urgent in the breathtakingly intense prayer "Salve Regina," earthly concerns of any kind felt trivial indeed.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone



Bringing a master's works to choral life


March 22, 2006

The works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt reach awesome heights and depths of meaning using the simplest musical means. Like visual artist Mark Rothko, who drew primal, spiritual energy from mere colored rectangles, Pärt uses the pared-down language of music -- scales and sometimes single tones -- to construct art of mesmerizing power.

Sunday's Great Performers concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir featured five of the master's choral works from the past decade. Pärt's "Salve Regina" opens with a lilting melody that wafts gracefully downward, moving from heaven to earth like the Virgin's sweet mercy. High voices intone humanity's childlike pleas to Mary; the choir's words and sound take on a rapt hush when Jesus' name is invoked.

Here and throughout the program, conductor Paul Hillier drew from the choir music-making of sublime and self-abnegating mastery. Faultless in matters of pitch, dynamics and tonal blend, the choristers never drew attention to their own virtuosity, instead remaining alert to the sense of wonder in Pärt's works. Just as his music both exalts and melts away into its mystical texts, so did the choir sing with soulful, humble beauty.

The audience sat in meditative silence, holding its applause between Pärt's works. The soft, voluptuous final note in "Littlemore Tractus" - evoking the "peace at the last" for which believers hope - hovered, vibrant yet immaterial, in the majestic gold and ochre interior of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Bouncy, glowing bursts of sound, almost Rossinian in jollity, gladdened the narrative portions of Pärt's "Dopo la vittoria," a cantata written for the 1,600th anniversary in 1997 of St. Ambrose's death. In the "Anthem of St. John the Baptist," receiving its New York premiere, the choir evoked a swell of light as Jesus approached the Baptist and a crushing radiance for the Holy Spirit's manifestation. The quiet harmonies that opened "Nunc dimittis" first splayed and then folded in on themselves. A quiet "Amen" brought the canticle to an end, commingling high tones with the basses' stinging buzz.

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent shone in two solo organ works by Pärt.

"Trivium" sets a single tone (the note D) in a prism, exploring its shifting colors and implications, in sonorities ranging from whispers to crashing, grinding swoops. "Annum per annum," a set of variations, is bracketed by an ear-splitting chord that gradually fades to the faint whirr of the organ mechanism, only to make the return journey from the hiss of breath to cosmic vastness at work's end.

In the "Five Religious Folk Songs" by Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek, the choir created an uncanny sense of homely, familiar dialogue with the divine. Selections from Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil" perhaps wanted a grittier sound, but the choir
nonetheless sang with riveting eloquence, summoning tones of searing, inhuman urgency for the angels' proclamation of Jesus' resurrection and glory.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.


December 16, 2005

Surprises and Delicacies in a Year of Exciting Classical CD's


The classical music critics of The New York Times select the year's most notable CD's.

James R. Oestreich

Rachmaninoff: 'All-Night Vigil'
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi France).

Otherwise known as Rachmaninoff's Vespers, for its first section. Everything Paul Hillier touches turns to choral gold (as used to be the case with Robert Shaw, who also recorded this glorious work beautifully, late in his career). The Estonian choir, complete with the requisite Slavic-style deep basses, gives Mr. Hillier its all.


Songs of a Modern Allegiance and Reverence
Bernard Holland
New York Times (2003-11-11)

Many countries with small military budgets arm themselves with culture. Art tells outsiders what a people think and feel; it also provides a rallying ground and common cause for those within a nation's borders. Never underestimate its power. Maybe this is why musical visitors from Eastern Europe - in this case the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Nov. 5 - seem to arrive literally brandishing their homegrown creative impulse. Despite a rainy night and the out-of-the-way location on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, this shabby chic ex-synagogue was nearly full, with an audience split evenly between the young and the curious, and older people hoping for brief contact with former homelands. If the music ran from the 17th century to the present, the Orthodox Church was never out of earshot. Recent pieces like Galina Grigorjeva's "On Leaving" (mournful, stately), Arvo Pärt's Two Slavonic Psalms (pushed along by uneven phrases) and Alfred Schnittke's Three Sacred Songs (with gently subversive inner harmony and changes of key) more or less ignored the 20th-century world of sound around them.

Dmitry Bortniansky, appearing three times on the program, was a
contemporary of Mozart and survived into old age as Mozart did not, dying in 1825. He created a point where Baroque choral style, the operatic tendencies of the late 18th century and the darkly colored, drone-driven modal style of the Orthodox Church had little trouble meeting. He was a musician of astonishing sophistication and one of the few forgotten composers we might think about remembering.

The Estonians, singing a cappella, were house-proud for their own Mr. Part but also embraced neighboring music from Russia and Ukraine as well as that of two 18th-century Italian transplants, Baldassare Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti. The chorus sang richly, faithfully in tune and with the expected conviction. Under the British conductor Paul Hillier they were precise without being fanatic about it. It is a nice sound.

Allegiance to one's national music is two-edged. The underpinning that it provides is both strength-giving and reassuring. The heavy magnetic field can also immobilize the imagination. But perhaps I am too American to trust 20th-century composers so abjectly obeisant to their past. A "Gloria" by Vasily Titov, very beautiful, was also sung.


Geoff Chapman
Toronto Star (2003-11-08)

Twenty-seven mesmerizing voices--and music of sustained beauty that's sustenance for the soul.

The vaunted Estonia Philharmonic chamber Choir entranced some hundreds of spectators last night at Metropolitan United Church, that staunch Methodist bastion on Queen, with glorious singing that will reverberate in the memories of listeners for a long time.

The choir, conducted by English artistic director Paul Hillier (who founded the Hilliard Ensemble), was performing the first of two concerts under the auspices of Soundstreams and CBC Radio 2.

The mostly youthful choristers, whose repertoire also extends to Gregorian chant and late Baroque, delivered eight works by mostly alive composers from the Baltic region with focused attention. They sang in English and Latin, as well as their home language, and this, their third visit to Toronto, may have been their best.

The shadow of Orthodox Church liturgy was apparent, but the Baltic region has deep wellsprings of creative art on which to draw, and this choir's concerts and recordings show that Arvo Part should not be the only regional composer familiar to western ears.

Hillier's pinpoint control was evident from Estonian Cyrillus Kreek's "Three Psalms of David", which made a fine opening. Precisely layered and featuring deliciously rich resonance in the crucial low registers. It was followed by (Estonia's) Part, the eloquent simplicity of his "Two Slavic Psalms tastefully emphasized, its purity never allowed become merely plain.

Perhaps the second ranking composer from Estonia is VeljoTormis, but his "Kullerva's Message," drawn from mythic tales of long ago and sung in English was more novelty than enlightenment.

All this serious Baltic music allows little interpretive choice and this relatively frisky, martial piece done with just 16 singers in English was often strident. It was the weakest point of the evening.

Yet that's weak compared to the truly glowing elsewhere, such as the succeeding "Alleluiah" of Lithuania's Algirdas Martinaitis with polyphony so accomplished it left this scribe in awe.

Russia's Alfred Schnittke drew on Orthodox liturgy for his "Three Sacred Songs," the first known to the West as "Ave Maria": the last as the Lord's Prayer.

Here refined sensibility was in place, neatly balancing intensity and dignity; and offering palpable beauty with the bonus of scrupulous diction.

Russian-born Galina Grigorjeva is now an Estonian, her "On Leaving" featuring a brooding soulfulness that suited this examination of the moment of death with poetry and polyphony based on prayer texts.

It was deeply spiritual, an excellent high tenor soloist most affecting and the ultra-deep basses fathoming the bleakness of it all.

Denmark's Per Norgard has found a majestic flow as well as a devilishly complex set of time signatures for his "Winter Hymn" that was dispatched with a unique fervour, but it was matched in appeal by the choir's profound reading in Latin of Estonian composer Urmas Sisask's five-part "Gloria Patri." The frequent result were passages of serene loveliness.

Tomorrow night at the same venue at 7:30, the choir, joined by Canada's Elmer Iseler Singers, will perform a mixed program that includes new Canadian works and the North American premiere of Henryk Gorecki's epic "Salve Sidus Polinarum."


From the Baltics, With Intensity
Daniel Schlosberg
Newsday (2003-11-07)

Just what, exactly, are they putting in that Baltic Sea? If you've been following the worldwide classical music scene the past couple of decades, you have to be asking yourself such a question, as so many renowned musicians hail from the region. From the idiosyncratic Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer to the intrepid Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Baltics seem to be a hotbed of some of today's most interesting musical activity.

The Baltics boast particular pride among vocal groups. The Swedish Radio Choir and the St. Petersburg State Academic Capella (which performed last week) are both at the top of their genre. So, too, with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, which performed under its illustrious director, Paul Hillier, at the Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side Wednesday.

The program of Russian choral music proved to be a soberly intense evening. The offerings from this specialized repertoire was evenly divided between old and new, and the most contemporary voices were the most thought provoking. For example, the longest work of the evening, Galina Grigorjeva's (b. 1962) "On Leaving," which represents the departure of the soul from the body, displayed a keen ear for sonorities. Subtle dissonance here and there inflected, but did not disrupt, a pervasively expansive quality.
And the encore, an "Alleluia" by the Lithuanian Algirdas Martinaitis (b. 1950), juxtaposed an almost Christmas- carol bounce with undercurrents of unease. The unresolved ending proved particularly disquieting.

The 18th century was chiefly represented by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), whose conservative style (even given the time) effectively emits the sense of suffering and mystery that is at the heart of so much Russian music. It was also revealing to hear a work from the classical era by Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785). His "In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep," included some intricate counterpoint, which the ensemble dispatched with confidence.

Throughout the evening, the choir sang with control, precision and care. It is not a group that relishes overt drama, and Hillier favors blend and balance over a larger emotional palette. Indeed, the most affecting moments were often the most quiet, where a barely perceptible sound demonstrated the group's magnificent sense of ensemble. The chorus barely seemed to move, which reinforced the reserved, grave nature of the music.
Its comportment, as well as its musicality, also underscored the general aesthetic of Russian Orthodox choral music. As a matter of doctrine, musical instruments are not allowed inside church doors, and choral singing in the service assumes a significance on par with prayer. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Chorus distinctly evoked that quality of devotion.

The gilded, seemingly ageless Orensanz Center, a former synagogue, provided the perfect backdrop for the meditative and often ravishing performances by this formidable ensemble.

Five songs from Gloria Patri (1988)
And then in silence there with me be only You (2002)
Winter Hymn (1976/84)
On Leaving (1999)
Three Sacred Hymns (1983/84)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi- 907331(CD)
No Reference Recording

No musical realm is more alive and fertile regarding the production and performance of new works than that of choral and vocal music. Of course, much of it tends to be highly imitative/derivative/predictable--mostly for reasons of singability--but the really interesting new(er) stuff shows that even with the physical limitations of voices and singing technique, and even within the tonal world, there's still lots of room for originality. And because so much new choral music is written and performed every year, choral music fans are some of the most experienced, adventurous, savvy, and open-minded listeners who, while they appreciate uniqueness and experimentation, also are intolerant of music that fails to engage, entertain, move, or otherwise make a discernible point relative to its particular text choices and musical setting.

In the second installment of their Baltic Voices series, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and conductor Paul Hillier focus on sacred music from Estonia, the Ukraine, Denmark, and Russia, all of it written during the past 20 years. Two of the works--Galina Grigorjeva's On Leaving and Toivo Tulev's And then in silence there with me be only You--are world-premiere recordings, and the rest likely will be new to the ears of most North American listeners. And for all discerning choral music lovers, there's good news: the pieces on display here are not only well worth hearing but in several cases merit regular inclusion on concert programs. And at the very least, the recording should win deserved attention for Estonian composers Urmas Sisask and Toivo Tulev and renewed regard for Per Norgard's choral works.

Although I would hesitate to use the word "masterpiece" for anything included here, I would apply the words "beautiful" and "tuneful" and "affecting" to the five selections from Sisask's Gloria Patri, which the choir sings with ardent enthusiasm and, in the slow, quiet "Oremus" movement, with patiently, perfectly sustained harmonic tension and (as everywhere) dead-on intonation. Tulev's And then in silence is very different in its sometimes quirky melodic leaps, more dissonant harmonies, and inventive use of sectional contrasts and extremes of choral registers.

Galina Grigorjeva's On Leaving consists of five sections and lasts nearly 22 mostly-interesting minutes. It's firmly rooted in Russian Orthodox choral style, variously employing modal melody and harmony, thick, bass-heavy textures, and harmonized and unison chant, adding a few more modern touches including an improvisatory-sounding flute (in Ode 1) and frequent washes of colorful dissonance. Per Norgard's Winter Hymn is "an arrangement of the composer's Winter Cantata" by Swedish conductor Gunnar Eriksson, and it's a gem, a masterful musical realization of poet Ole Sarvig's English version of his original poem "The Year". The work's essential appeal comes from its varied and skillfully-wrought harmony, imaginatively combining the traditonal with more modern structures and occasionally foiling the expected functional relationships. It makes for nine minutes of restrained yet memorable, moody drama. Schnittke's Three Sacred Hymns are relatively short but densely packed, soulful expressions born of Russian church music tradition.

Once again, Hillier and his first-rate choir touch us with exemplary renditions of rare yet extraordinary repertoire that truly does make its respective points, both spiritual and musical--recorded in very fine, well-balanced sound that only loses detail in the most impossibly thick-textured passages. This sort of willingness to investigate and prepare new music for performance demands continued support and encouragement by all who love singing. On to Volume 3!

--David Vernier


Once again, Hillier and his first-rate choir touch us "with exemplary renditions of rare yet extraordinary repertoire that truly does make its respective points, both spiritual and musical... This sort of willingness to investigate and prepare new music for performance demands continued support and encouragement by all who love singing. On to Volume 3!"

THE POWERS OF HEAVEN--Orthodox music of the 17th & 18th centuries

Works by Bortnyansky (Sacred concertos Nos. 24, 27, & 32; Cherubic Hymn),

Diletsky, Vedel, Galuppi, others

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Paul Hillier

Harmonia Mundi- 907318(CD)

Reference Recording - Bortnyansky: Sacred concertos/Polyansky (Chandos)

There are many other collections of Orthodox music on CD, mostly from Russian choirs, the majority recorded or released since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The singing is undeniably authentic, informed with native-language savvy, wide vibrato, and characteristic throaty resonance. The Bortnyansky series on Chandos that features the Sacred Concertos sung by the Russian State Symphonic Cappella is one of the premier collections, joining a host of releases by ensembles such as the Russian Patriarchate Choir (Opus 111), the Novospassky Monastery Choir (Naxos), and the Male Choir Valéry Rybin (Russian Season), each offering a varied sampling of this unique liturgical repertoire. American (Slavyanka Men's Chorus on Harmonia Mundi) and British (Holst Singers on Hyperion) groups also offered their take on this rich and colorful music, accompanied by dozens of spottily available recordings from the Soviet Melodiya archives.

This recording offers the more clear, open-voiced Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in a kind of survey that describes the style of Orthodox music, but also places it in context, both regarding its baroque Italian influences and in terms of its traditional place in the church service. We are also reminded how important singing is to the Orthodox Church, how integral it is to worship, and therefore how seriously and meaningfully the music we are hearing is regarded by congregation and choir. In the 18th century, Peter the Great's "Westernization" of Russian culture included bringing European composers to St. Petersburg, among them the Italians Baldassare Galuppi and Giuseppe Sarti. Galuppi taught composition to Bortnyansky, and as we work our way through this beautifully sung program, we hear both the strong Italian baroque influence and the persistent and emphatic, staunchly Russian chordal style that defines most of these settings. One interesting sequence begins with Galuppi's Italianate In the Flesh Thou Didst Fall Asleep, followed by Bortnyansky's Concerto No. 24, drenched in Galuppi-inspired mannerisms, then back to the thick-textured, declamatory, Slavic character of Diletsky's Praise the Name of the Lord, and on to a more Russian-flavored Bortnyansky Concerto No. 27, but with many "Italian" touches, particularly in the brief polyphonic flourishes and some of the harmonic progressions, chromatic bass movement, and melodic writing for solo singers.

Highlights include Bortnyansky's beloved Cherubic Hymn and the closing minutes of the same composer's Concerto No. 32 (the program's final work), an extended fugal passage that raises the oft-discussed question regarding this composer's true sensibilities--"Slav or Italian"? Of course, it really doesn't matter, because anyone who hears this music will have no doubt as to its origin, its firm roots in the Slavonic language, and its deeply spiritual, church-centered heritage. For us listeners, whether of Orthodox faith or not, we certainly can enjoy the sumptuousness of the harmony, the expansive range of the voices, and the careful balance and blend maintained by Paul Hillier and his Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. This is an all-around success--musically rewarding, educationally informative, and, for at least some few listeners, an involving, spiritually refreshing 70 minutes. The sound, recorded in a Tallinn church, takes on a bit of a glare in louder sections, especially where sopranos are in higher registers; otherwise, it's just about perfect.

--David Vernier


"listeners...can enjoy the sumptuousness of the harmony, the expansive range of the voices, and the careful balance and blend maintained by Paul Hillier and his Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. This is an all-around success--musically rewarding, educationally informative, and, for at least some few listeners, an involving, spiritually refreshing 70 minutes.

The Powers of Heaven: Orthodox Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries

During the Soviet Union's reign of nearly three-quarters of a century, the Orthodox Church did not fare well. Religion, after all, was "the opiate of the people," according to Marxist doctrine, something to be outgrown and kicked aside by the new, improved "Soviet man." Many churches were knocked down or converted to museums; having one's children baptized or attending divine services was not exactly a career-enhancing move. And, unsurprisingly, interest in, and performance standards for, church music and art declined at the same time. Even the fabled Russian basso profundo, the bed- [JU]rock of Orthodox music, threatened to become extinct in a world that no longer seemed to need his sound.

But the new Russia is starting to look and sound a lot like the old Russia in some ways. The churches are open and full again, and some of the sanctuaries once razed are being rebuilt. The painting of icons is a growth industry, both for use at home and for export. Church music is again being performed, and to a high standard. Best of all, the basses are back.

They can be heard to fine effect in "The Powers of Heaven: Orthodox Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries." Singing, particularly choral singing, is an integral part of Orthodox liturgy. Instruments (aside from bells) are not allowed within church buildings, which puts the burden of musical richness and texture on voices singing in harmony. After Peter the Great opened Russia to the West, composers began to integrate the Slavic and Western, particularly Italian, choral styles. This disc offers 11 reasons to celebrate the hybrid.

Chief among them are "The Cherubic Hymn," by Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), who arrived in the capital from Ukraine as a choirboy at the Imperial Court Chapel and stayed on to become its director and an influential composer. His studies were with Italian composers, whose lightening and brightening influences on the Slavic choral tradition may readily be heard. Bortniansky is heavily represented here, claiming five of the 11 tracks.

There's a more traditionally Slavic sound in the lone selection by Artemy Vedel (1767-1808), another Ukrainian, but one who stayed put in his homeland. But there's not a bad track in the entire disc.

The outstanding Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir exhibits their usual superb blend and intonation under the direction of Paul Hillier, who is perhaps the world's leading choral conductor post-Robert Shaw.

"The Powers of Heaven: Orthodox Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries"
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; conducted by Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907318)


BILLBOARD - Feb 8, 2003

Album Title: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra/Paul Hillier
Producer(s): Robina G. Young, Brad Michel
Label/Catalog Number: Harmonia Mundi 907311
Release Date: Feb. 11
Source: PRINT
Originally Reviewed: February 08, 2003

Some of the most involving classical scores in recent years have been composed in the Baltics, and this beautifully produced anthology presents the best of the region's contemporary choral music—all performed with the passionate precision connoisseurs have come to expect from the Estonian Chamber Choir, led here by the versatile Paul Hillier. The collection features premiere recordings by three of the region's most distinguished composers: ". . . which was the son of. . ." by Arvo Pärt, "Latvian Bourdon Songs" by Veljo Tormis, and the deeply moving "Dona Nobis Pacem" by Peteris Vasks. There are also works by Einojuhani Rautavaara, Cyrillus Kreek, and Sven-David Sandstrøm; of Sandstrøm's two works, his elaboration on Purcell's shattering "Hear My Prayer, O Lord" is one of the disc's many highlights.—BB


March 1 - 7, 2002

A Lot of Night Music: An Offering You Can't Refuse

by Alan Rich

Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, which filled the air of UCLA’s Royce Hall the next night with mysterious shimmer and shimmering mystery, dates from about the same time as Offertorium. Both are by composers oppressed by the yoke of Soviet censorship who achieved their current high regard only after leaving their respective homelands. I would not belabor any further similarities, but hearing those two overpowering works on successive nights has been beneficial to my outlook on life, not to mention my metabolism. The Te Deum came after two big choral pieces by Vivaldi, and rounded out an evening of spellbinding music-making by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Tönu Kaljuste. They have been here before, but not nearly often enough.

Pärt has written about his music as comparable to “white light, which contains all colors,” with the “spirit of the listener” as prism. This Te Deum is, indeed, a creation fashioned out of color. It emerges from a darkness dimly perceived; its harmonies go on for minutes as a kind of bleached-out gray, pierced now and then by a single diatonic chord like a flash of gold. There is a swatch of dark red now and then, but not often and not for long. At the end a small group of voices intones a threefold “Sanctus,” many times repeated ever more softly, fading finally to silence; if there is a more beautiful ending in all music it doesn’t come immediately to mind. (The Gubaidulina also ends extraor dinarily, by the way, like a sudden halt at the brink of a precipice.)

The Estonians are a marvelous performing force, as their many discs — including the Te Deum on ECM — emphatically prove. The Pärt work called for a string orchestra with a prepared piano and with a deep bass note — on tape, played on an Aeolian wind-harp — serving as ground zero; two Vivaldi psalm settings used the chorus and orchestra (with a couple of winds and a small portative organ) split into two answering groups, with vocal soloists drawn from the 28-member chorus. I always think of Estonia’s flag — white, black and a particularly clean, cold blue — when I hear that country’s music: slightly cool, efficient, modest. I must go there sometime.


Feb. 27, 01:00 EDT

Estonians in splendid voice with Rachmaninoff

Geoff Chapman
Music Critic

The spell of Rachmaninoff's Vespers is potent indeed, especially when first-rate choristers address its challenges in an unflinching manner.

The sound of the sable-smooth a capella Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under founder-conductor Tõnu Kaljuste last night at a jam-packed Metropolitan United Church surely delighted followers of the ancient Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and equally surely it must have made its mark on non-believers.

On the only Canadian stop during a North American tour, the 27 singers delivered a searching, fully committed treatment of the Russian composer's splendiferous sacred composition, bringing richness and power to this music of colour and ceremony.

Kaljuste offered 10 of the 15 individual numbers that comprise the work, prizing interior reflection and careful shaping of this immense sonic structure over a brilliant surface, though there were incandescent moments and times when all seemed ineffably red-blooded.

With spectacular low voices and thrusting tenors among the 15 male and 12 female singers, the composer's demand for purity of timbre was well met. By dividing voices and exploiting extremities of pitch and dynamic, Rachmaninoff enriched the texture, so that it was relatively easy for the choir to become rhapsodic in its rapture.

The deep sense of yearning in these sections of the work, which is also known as the "All Night Vigil," was made wondrously apparent, a fierce "Laudate Dominum" followed by the dramatic "Story Of The Resurrection," an exultant hymn and a munificent "Magnificat" as Kaljuste induced his charges to unlock storehouses of electrifying passion.

The second half of the concert was devoted to more informal pieces created by Veljo Tormis that draw on legend, folk song and ancient epics, which guarantees a degree of melancholy. The undoubted highlights were "Litany To Thunder," based on a 17th century prayer for rain, and "Curse Upon Iron," whose roots are in long-ago shamanism. Tenor Mati Turi and bass Allan Vurma carried the quirky narrative and Kaljuste added theatrical percussion.

Last night's concert will be broadcast on CBC this Sunday and on April 28. Tonight at 8 at the same venue the choir is joined by the Elmer Iseler Singers for a concert of works by Estonian hero Arvo Part and Canadian composers John Estacio and James Wolfe.

Tour Programs

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The All-Night Vigil for choir, Op. 52

(Russian: Всенощное бдение для хора, Vsyenoshchnoye bdyeniye dlya khora)

And more TBA



Visit Choir's Web Site



Personal & Biased Comments About The Artist

The choir came on their first real tour to North America in October of ’95 thanks to the efforts of my colleagues at Lincoln Center and at the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor.  They were aware of the choir’s recording of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum on ECM – I wasn’t, and I was a little skeptical.  The choir came, first on the strength of their connection to their fellow-countryman, Pärt.  His music and the choir’s recordings of them are a worldwide phenomenon – with hundreds of thousands of CDs sold.  Imagine a choir from Estonian, a composer from Estonia, neither household names, with that kind of success.

Now, 6 tours later, the choir is recognized, on their own, as one of the great choirs touring.  Concert presenters had them come once to sing Pärt, but they invite them back to sing whatever the choir wants.  Return engagements are the norm.

Now led by Paul Hillier, who was invited to take over by the choir’s founding director, Tõnu Kaljuste, the choir’s focus has shifted in interesting ways.

Technical Requirements

The Presenter will please provide

Chairs: 29 pcs for rehearsal

Music stands: 1 (for conductor) + 28 for choir

Risers: for the second line (14 singers)

Dressing rooms: 3 (1 for conductor + 1 for 14 ladies + 1 for 14 men), all with hangers, mirrors & chairs, Ironing board & iron.  Rooms to be locked during rehearsal & concert.

Hospitality: Warm and cold drinks, light snacks, during rehearsal time and concert.

Rehearsal Time – 2 hours in concert space on day of concert; time TBD.


New World Classics · Tel (802) 674-4478 · E-mail

Site Design: Doylestown Web Design