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Conductor Maaja Roos (left) and the soloist Arete Teemets after the concert. Photo: Eleri Ever


Those who don’t know Estonian choral music beyond the name Arvo Pärt may wonder whether it is like Latvian or Lithuanian music. But the Baltic states are quite different from one another in many respects, notably music — in which Estonia is truly distinct. Its people revere singing as a national pastime, gathering every five years on a cliff facing the Baltic Sea, with a choir of thousands singing to many thousands more. 


How fitting then, on the occasion of the country’s centennial, that the Esto-Atlantis Choir – 100 singers from the US, Europe, and Canada – should celebrate the grand occasion with song. The concert opened with brightly clad children – the future of Estonia’s musical heritage – walking onstage hand-inhand, in a charming nod to folk dancing.


Rudolf Tobias, often called the father of Estonian music, had lamented that too much German influence had infiltrated the pure, ancient strains of Estonian folk songs. It was left to his daughter Helen Tobias-Duesberg to restore their native spirit with two volumes of folk arrangements. The Laulurõõm children’s choir sang six of these songs, described in the program as being about “brothers leaving home in wartime, storks returning home in summertime, and the people persevering through servitude.” The children followed every movement of the strikingly graceful conductor, Leila Roos. To have dozens of children sing in unison with near-perfect intonation is quite remarkable. But to have them sing with musical expression and sensitivity is a tribute to this fine young conductor. 


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Conductor and soloist Leila Roos. Photo: Eleri Ever


The multifaceted Maaja Roos appeared next with Tobias-Duesberg’s dreamy Hommage à Arvo Pärt. Her interpretation of the mystical underpinnings in Pärt’s signature tintinnabulism transported the listener into an otherworldly place of clarion bells and harplike strumming within the piano. This experience led elegantly into the Kullamaa Chamber Ensemble’s performance of Pärt’s Morning Star. They sang with exquisite intonation and beauty of tone — beginning and ending in pastel pianos and pianissimos, conjuring images of a just-so illuminated morning star.


The apex of the concert was the astonishing requiem of Helen Tobias-Duesberg — astonishing that such vast, highly structured and polyphonic writing could be contained in an oratorio under an hour in length. That so much could be musically spoken in so little time is a testament to the mastery of this Manhattanborn Estonian composer.


The opening and closing Requiem Aeternam swept us up in a mystical Dorian mode, but then reminded us that we can all meet again in Jerusalem – repeated in ever-rising key changes and dynamics – almost bringing the audience out of their seats. The pleading for mercy in Kyrie Eleison managed to sound both deep and intimate in the context of this 100-member choir.


It would be tempting to speak about the uniquely spectacular aspects of every movement in the requiem, but what stood out most to this listener was the sensitive responsiveness of the choir to its commanding conductor. Maaja Roos managed to produce chamber choir aspects in a mass choir with subtlety and precision, and sometimes breathtakingly dynamic changes — always illuminating the text and enlightening the audience with a deeper spiritual understanding.


Reekviem’s three soloists made outstanding contributions to the work. None more so than the lovely mezzo soprano Arete Teemets, who sang with luscious tone and expressive richness. Her Lacrimosa showed off an impressive lower register and interpretive acumen, inviting the listener to grieve the tears of descending chromatic tones. Benedictus highlighted Teemets’ luminescent higher register; the choir supporting her intermittent Recordare solos with renaissance fluidity. 


Bass Alar Pintsaar was a marvelously dramatic deliverer of the bad news that may await us in the hereafter with Confutatis maledictis. Veikko Kiiver gave us intimations of a lighter tenor clearly schooled in early music expressivity with Hostias. The brilliant concert organist Ines Maidre coaxed orchestral sounds out of Alice Tully Hall’s magnificent organ. She supported the chorus beautifully through the requiem and into the closing numbers of the concert, Rudolf Tobias’ vivid and piercing Otsekui hirv and the uplifting hymn Eks teie tea.


The kudos ultimately go to the mass choir under the able direction of Maestra Maaja Roos. She produced a work of great unity, bringing musicians together across the Atlantic, and four generations of family music together on one stage, with the compositions of her mother and grandfather and the performance and conducting by her daughter and herself. 


Clearly this was a work of love and dedication, honoring these tremendous composers, who ought to be known the world over. Helen Tobias-Duesberg’s Reekviem, especially, should be a staple in international repertoire. 


Bravo to the Esto-Atlantis Choir and the Laulurõõm children’s choir, for not only representing Estonia on this significant occasion, but giving the audience a most unique Easter gift of inspiration and hope.




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