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September 16, 2004

Cincinnati Post

Short for Rahvusmeeskoor ("national men's choir" in Estonian), RAM stands for the Estonian National Male Choir, a force in the tiny country on the Baltic for over half a century. Founded in 1944, the year tanks rolled into the capital city of Tallinn to seal the takeover of Estonia by the Soviet Union, RAM has symbolized Estonia's nationalist feelings, carried on her vital singing tradition and provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people.

The 54-voice choir, the world's only full-time professional male choir, makes its debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by music director Paavo Järvi at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall. Estonian born Järvi will lead the CSO and choir in the CSO premiere of Jean Sibelius' dramatic symphony "Kullervo" (about a tragic hero of the Finnish epic "Kalevala"). RAM has an amazingly arduous work and concert schedule" (60-80 concerts a year, including international tours and recording). Many of the concerts include "completely new material. We rely heavily on sight-reading ability and quick learning and have to remain flexible in order to accomplish the quality level which is expected from our group.

RAM is an elite choir in a country of many choirs -- arguably more per capita than any country in the world, most of whom take part in Estonia's famous Song Festival, held every fifth year at the imposing song festival amphitheater in Tallinn. With about 45 male choirs, Estonia's male choir tradition "is in some measure stronger than other nations," said chief conductor Ants Soots, a professor at the Estonian Academy of Music in Tallinn.

Then there is RAM's own history and tradition. Founder/composer Gustav Ernesaks, who died in 1993 at the age of 85, became a legend in Estonia. His "powerful personality, great music and craving for freedom" heartened his countrymen during the years of Russian domination, said Soots. "He was like a lighthouse in the fight against Russification." It was Ernesaks who kept the song festivals going and made them a focus of Estonia's hopes for freedom. RAM played a powerful role in that, said Järvi, who attended Song Festivals as a child in Estonia and made his own conducting debut at the most recent Song Festival, held in July.

"It became a symbol of independence and strength and sort of not backing down. In Soviet times, when people were not allowed to gather with more than three people, you had a hundred men onstage. It was almost an army, but they were singing and not carrying guns. It was very emotional for Estonians." RAM's repertoire is huge, from Gregorian chant to contemporary Polish composer Krzysztov Penderecki, with an emphasis on different styles and cultures, said Soots, who keeps the Grammy in RAM's office in his study. Singing Old Finnish in "Kullervo" is a piece of cake, relatively speaking, since Estonian is very similar to Finnish. More difficult are "Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, archaic Norwegian, Japanese, etc.," he said.

The quality of Estonian singing may be partly attributable to the country's northern climate, said Vesilind, who "absolutely loves the cold weather." "Estonian singers have an openness about their voices, which tends to carry vast amounts of power. Perhaps this comes from the harsh winters and training under extreme circumstances. "Singing in the middle of RAM is like standing with a wall of sound all around you and inside you. Everything shakes."

Posted by acapnews at September 16, 2004 9:50 PM