If you look carefully at the beautiful photograph “Composer’s Kit” by Tõnu Kõrvits, you will spot a stone nestled near the bottom left with the poignant inscription “peace on earth.”
This should not surprise anyone familiar with the history of Estonia, a country that has been on the brink of cultural extinction more than once, having endured Danish, Swedish, German and Russian rule. Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union not once but twice: on February 24, 1918 and again on August 20, 1991. The second date is known as the “Restoration of Independence Day” and was the direct result of over four years of unrelenting singing demonstrations in Tallinn (the official capital, although Estonia has more than one) known as the Estonian Singing Revolution. A country with no weapons or army overcame Soviet rule by defiantly singing forbidden patriotic and national songs as Soviet tanks tried to quell the movement. The Estonians prevailed using their voices, not weapons.
The Stonewall Chorale presents “From Estonia With Love,” dedicated to the music of two Estonian composers, on March 21 at 7:30 PM at Holy Apostles Church, 296 Ninth Avenue. We celebrate the 80th birthday of Arvo Pärt (born 1935) by singing his Berliner Messe, and we are thrilled to give the New York premiere of the full version of Kreek’s Notebook by Tõnu Kõrvits (born 1969). Kõrvits will be on hand for the occasion to give a pre-concert talk at 7 PM. The Kõrvits is mesmerizing, the Pärt is mystically compelling, and the soul of the Estonian people is unmistakably present in both.
This program is remarkably meaningful to us. The Stonewall Chorale is the world’s first gay and lesbian chorus. We are everyday people who are your neighbors, coworkers, sisters, brothers, friends and cousins. Having lived through the long (and continuing) struggle for equal rights and freedom, we have a special affinity for those who have been oppressed, denied of their identity, and suffered loss of civil rights. Named after the Stonewall Riots of the 60s, The Stonewall Chorale was founded in 1977. Song as a means of cultural and political catalyst for change is the very reason we exist.
We knew we wanted to sing Tõnu Kõrvits’s Kreek’s Notebook, as it captured our hearts and imagination the instant we heard it. We were so eager to get going on the Kõrvits that we were given the score well in advance of our rehearsals and we listened to the recording assiduously to get the music in our ears and our souls. Our only concern was learning the texts in Estonian (a language resembling Finnish), but we listened to a specially prepared MP3 created by an Estonian volunteer in our network. When people had trouble because it was spoken a bit too fast to learn, we found an app which would slow down the speed of the words while maintaining the pronunciation! We also received tutoring from a person in our choir with expertise in Estonian.
Composed in 2007, Kreek’s Notebook received its first performance on June 1, 2007 at the final concert of the Cyrillus Kreek First Music Days in Estonia. The piece is based on eight folksongs from different regions collected by Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962). Had Kreek not preserved them in the early 20th century, these songs may well have gone into oblivion. They were forbidden during the Soviet regime.
In much the same way Charles Ives reimagined American folk tunes in visionary ways, Kõrvits breathes new life into each Estonian folksong with his expanded chromatic palette and imaginative string accompaniment. There is a sense of timelessness in Kreek’s Notebook. Drones, canons and chant coexist fluently with bitonality, ambiguous major/minor modes, open harmonics and improvisatory energy. The piece has been recorded on Hyperion Records and complete program notes as well as the download of the piece are available at www.hyperion-records.co.uk/tw.asp?w=W14458. We know that once you hear the opening measures, you will want to hear the piece performed live.
The other half of our program is Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe. Language (Latin) is not an issue, and we have performed this piece before. On paper, the music looks easy but it has great depth, and it is our desire to deliver the special nuances of the piece to ears of our listeners. Arvo Pärt compares his music to “white light which contains all colours: only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear.” We attempt to create that prism and are so fortunate to be singing in the resonant Church of the Holy Apostles where the listener will be cloaked in shimmering tones of Pärt’s unique musical vocabulary. Berliner Messe was composed in 1990. The original version was for four solo voices and organ, but subsequent versions exist for choir and organ and choir and strings -- as here. The Credo is based on an earlier piece, Summa, but appears in a major mode as an expression of the joy felt by greater freedom allowed in post-Communist Europe.
The Stonewall Chorale has a message for the people of Estonia: we stand in solidarity with you. We believe in peace through song. Like you, we believe peace and song are the most important things on earth.
Tickets for the concert are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Visit www.stonewallchorale.org for details.
Gwen Deely sings with The Stonewall Chorale.