Estonian choir inspires rock-star reactions

Washington Post

By Anne Midgette

Last year, a capacity crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall gave a rock-star reception to a concert of contemporary choral music. On Monday night, that same chorus will be back in Washington with a similar repertory — and you can still get tickets to the show.

The chorus — the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir — is hardly a household name in this country. In Estonia, though, it’s a national treasure, and its founder and frequent conductor, Tonu Kaljuste, has not only the looks of a rock star but also some of the same recognition and mystique.

Widely acclaimed in the international choral world, Kaljuste picks and chooses his projects throughout the year, and every summer he returns to his base on an unspoiled island off the coast of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. There, the annual Nargen Festival, which Kaljuste founded in 2009, offers performance art, opera and concerts in an old barn, with a special focus on the work of Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis, whom you probably haven’t heard of, and Arvo Pärt, whom you probably have.

It was a concert of Pärt’s music that drew the crowds to the Kennedy Center last year — and the gales of applause when it was over. Pärt enjoys something of a cult following even outside his native Estonia. Pure, powerful and unabashedly spiritual, his work pulverizes boundaries between pop and classical to find wide appeal among sophisticated music lovers of all tastes.

And its leading proponent is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

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