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On February 10 a Full Snow moon passed through Earth's shadow creating a lunar eclipse, while a comet visibly passed by. All of heaven seemed to conspire in the musical events going on in the Triangle. With Phillip Glass celebrating his 80th year through a festival in Chapel Hill, the NCS performing to a packed house in Raleigh, and the world renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) filling Duke Chapel with heavenly music, it seemed as if there was surely some universal devise at work.
The chapel was filled to capacity for the the 26-voice chamber choir's Duke Performances program entitled Northern Land and Spirit. The choir came to the risers with a Nordic coolness and restraint, but their sound was one of the most well balanced I have yet to hear. They displayed perfect intonation and a brilliant but warm tonal quality; their ensemble was incredible and completely blended. The cavernous space that is Duke Chapel complied as if was made for this sound. Finally.
Artistic director and chief conductor Karpars Putniņš lead the ensemble with such a full understanding of every moment of every work, it was hard to imagine whence he summoned the energy. (This group performs 60-80 times per year and has a repertoire that is jaw dropping!) Putniņš' every beat was clear and informed. While he is young, his resumé is formidable. He fills the shoes of the founder of EPCC, Tõnu Kaljuste, who stepped down in 2007, to be followed by Paul Hillier and Daniel Reuss.
The first part of the program featured sacred works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The preeminent choir for Pärt's works, EPCC has the full Pärt choral repertoire under their belt and has won various awards for its recordings of his work.
EPCC began the program with one of Pärt's early choral compositions, Solfeggio, with a text that needs no explanation. The piece does a great deal to explain everything that was to become recognizable about the composer's oeuvre – his use of tintinnabulation and the basing of the music on triads and complicated polyphonic movements.
Following were three sacred choral works from Tchaikovsky's Nine Sacred Pieces: "Cherubic Hymn," "Blessed Are They Whom Thou Hast Chosen," and "How the Powers of Heaven" – all sung in Russian. EPCC navigated the chordal complexities with an overwhelming magnificence.
Another set of Pärt's works concluded the first half: the well known Nunc Dimittis, The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Dopo La Vittoria – all done with breathtaking beauty and refinement. The audience was enthralled.
The second portion of the program featured two works by the recently deceased Estonian composer (and close colleague of Pärt) Veljo Tormis, whose music this choir again is well known for performing.
Towerbell of my Village included a reciter who read aloud the recollections of the bell tower in the town of his youth and his soul's connection throughout his life to that sound. As the reciter explained events along the path of his life, the choir filled in with sublime tone coloring. Throughout the work, a bell rings a single tone. It reminded me very much of Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The imagery of the text and the sorrowful yearning for something that has passed was beautifully moving.
Three rarely performed works by Jean Sibelius followed. EPCC performed "Song of My Heart," "Beloved" and the very brief but brilliant "Fire on the Island" from his Six Partsongs, Op. 18. The moving pieces are much like arts songs, with lovely stories and folksong-like qualities.
The concert closed with one of this choir's most famous performance selections, Curse upon Iron by Veljo Tormis. Two soloists whispered the curse while the choir and the conductor supported the shamanistic ritual of singing out the evil. This work is so visceral, so incredible, it has to be experienced to believe. (To listen to EPCC in a performance of the work go here.)
Because of the percussive nature of the text and of the piece itself, the chapel did not lend itself to the exorcism quite as effectively as one might have wished. From where I sat near the front and behind the choir, there was still a considerable amount of bleed that made the performance seem less energetic than I had heard previously. Nevertheless, it was clear that the group was on top of it the entire time and not at all thrown by the acoustic of the chapel. Putniņš' every beat was clear and informing. He even used the bending of his right index finger to subdivide beats while the same hand churned and stirred as if conjuring a spell.
After a standing ovation, EPCC returned for an encore of a short piece by another Estonian composer, but I could not understand Putniņš announcement, as he did not have a microphone. Let's hope that the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir makes its way back again soon bringing more music from the North.