WASHINGTON, November 20, 2013 – From the very first chord, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir revealed itself as a quietly confident, masterful ensemble. Surely the highlight of this year’s Georgetown Concert Series, this Grammy Award-winning choir clearly demonstrated why they are held in such high esteem in the choral world, not to mention why they are Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s favorite choral ensemble.
While the choir is known primarily for their luminous Pärt interpretations, the first half of Wednesday night’s program consisted of music by Rudolf Tobias and Johannes Brahms. Beginning with the latter’s “Warum ist da Licht gegeben den Mühseligen?” (“Wherefore hath the light been given to a heart sorrowful?”) (Op. 74), maestro Daniel Reuss (who conducted with tuning fork in hand) moved the ensemble efficiently through an authoritative performance, taking such brief pauses between movements to make the pieces flow neatly together.
A wonderfully human moment occurred in the midst of the three short but highly challenging Tobias pieces that followed the Brahms when the choir momentarily collapsed during a “false start” of sorts. Reuss turned to the audience with a half bow of apology, rebooted his choir, and proceeded by leading yet another almost flawless performance. This impressive recovery was received with delight by what already was clearly a partisan crowd.
The choir returned to its musical home in the second half of the program, beginning with Arvo Pärt’s “Two Slavonic Psalms.” It was in Pärt’s notoriously difficult-to-sing compositions that this group truly demonstrated their interpretative expertise, handling the composer’s difficult leaps, exposed lines, and demanding harmonic mutations with seeming ease. All that was left was to enjoy a riveting encounter with beauty, knowing that one was experiencing Pärt’s music as the composer himself would surely intend.
Reuss let the “Two Slavonic Psalms” flow almost immediately into Alfred Schnittke’s “The Sacred Hymns.” While programmatically disorienting, one wonders if this was by design, as Schnittke’s language can be highly complimentary to Pärt’s.
Coming from a Soviet-era composer who wrote relatively little choral music, Schnittke’s neutrally named works of sacred music leave one to wonder as to the composer’s religious intent. Certainly the boss of the Communist Composers’ Union during Schnittke’s time was not amused, using Schnittke’s suspected western attitudes and religious ideas as pretext to ban the composer from traveling.
Sung here in a beautiful American church and book-ended by the obviously religious music of Pärt, this might have been a bit of a spiritual rehabilitation for the late Russian’s music.
The obvious highlight of the evening was certainly Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat,” which the Estonian singers presented with both practiced ease and reverence. This is one of those works which – when sung with expertise and conviction – seem capable of visibly shimmering the very air around the listener, which was very nearly the effect of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s sublime performance.
If there was one regret to the evening, it was the fact that the choir sang in such a small, acoustically dry space. Even so, the choir is to be commended for having adjusted so well to this less than ideal acoustic situation. Nonetheless, St. John’s and the parish’s Georgetown Concert Series are deserving of praise for bringing such a world-class choral ensemble to Washington.
Finally, if you missed this special night, don’t fret: the choir will return to Washington in May 2014 with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, to perform an all Pärt program at the Kennedy Center with the composer in attendance.
Rating: *** ½ (3.5 out of 4 Stars)
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