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July 13, 2004

Cincinnati Post

John Leman, former director of the Cincinnati May Festival chorus, calls conducting at the 1991 "Bridges of Song" Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, "one of the top five musical experiences of my life." Having attended Estonia's famous Song Festival July 3 and 4 in Tallinn, I am a believer, too. There is nothing like it in the world -- as an expression of national unity, as a demonstration of the power of music and as a sheer vocal extravaganza.

During the final years of Soviet occupation -- Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991 -- song festivals attracted up to a half-million people, a third of the entire population, and became the embodiment of her "singing revolution." In November 2003, the United Nations (UNESCO) declared Estonia's Song Festival a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It's hard to conceive an event on such a scale.

Imagine:

• 21,000 voices coming together in one place to sing for tens of thousands of people stretching up a hillside in front of a giant bowl-shaped amphitheatre on the shore of the Baltic Sea. A choir of 19,000, arguably the largest single choir in the world, participated in the July 4 grand finale.

• Acres of native finery -- choristers and listeners in starched cotton caps, stovepipe hats, gaily colored skirts and scarves -- flowers everywhere and oversize images of singers and conductors projected onto a huge video screen.

• A small battalion of conductors (I counted over 40) festooned with oak leaf wreaths and hailed like Olympic athletes. Some, including presiding conductor Eri Klas, were tossed in the air as the country's unofficial national anthem, "Mu isamaa on minun arm" ("My fatherland, you are my love") rose from the entire assembly, bringing the two-day, eight-hour marathon to a close. It's a hymn fraught with emotion, having been sung as a form of protest at song festivals during the Soviet era (1940-91).

Estonia's song festival takes place every fifth year and is accompanied by a two-day dance festival, a parade and the lighting of a ceremonial flame on top of a tower adjoining the amphitheater. In the manner of the Olympic torch, the flame is transported overland from Tartu, Estonia, site of the first Song Festival. President Arnold Ruutel and prime minister Juhan Parts offered remarks. To celebrate Estonia's entry into the European Union in May, more than a million trees were planted in the country before the festival.

The enormous crowd was festive and exceedingly well-mannered, with no hint of rowdiness, enjoying food and drink from the savory concessions on the periphery. There was flag-waving, a sea of blue balloons (Estonia's flag is blue, black and white), dancing and singing along with favorite numbers, especially on the second day, which featured more traditional song festival fare, including folksongs and brass bands -- even Rodgers and Hammerstein (you have to hear "The Lonely Goatherd" yodeled in Estonian).

Estonian choral singing is phenomenal. Even the largest massed choirs sing as one voice, with precise ensemble and the utmost clarity of diction. Leman marveled at it in 1991, when he led an American chorus in a special "peace through song" festival that included guest choirs from Soviet satellite nations, including Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan.

"Their pianissimos are softer than we sing in this country. Their fortes are louder. And they sing difficult literature. It puts this country to shame." Choral singing begins at an early age in Estonia, and there are hundreds if not thousands of choirs in the country of 1.36 million. "You can see why there are so many Estonian musicians," said Järvi, who sang in Estonian choirs as a boy. More

Posted by acapnews at July 13, 2004 9:26 PM

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