Redwood Chamber Choir

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By Scott MacClelland

ARCANA? Count me in. Crista Berryessa’s new Redwood Chamber Choir made its debut with an ambitious program titled “Shamanic Echoes in Modern Estonian Choral Music.” Going to Estonia on Saturday meant driving high up Alba Road in Ben Lomond to Barbara Thomas’ Redwood Amphitheatre (see photo) to hear 21 “auditioned” singers intone music by three living Estonian composers, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis and Urmas Sisask.

The jumping off point was quoted in the program notes, “One of every three Estonians is born a shaman.” Additionally, the Kalevala, based on Finnish and Karlelian oral-tradition folklore and myth, is no less important to Estonian cultural identity.

What became obvious was the differences of style between these composers. Pärt, the most senior and best known internationally, is almost always deeply circumspect and favors phrase of breath over rhythmic beat. Tormis makes mischief by combining old Estonian ritualistic incantations and folk rhythms with modern commentaries. Sisask, the youngest, and a Roman Catholic, is a follower of Johannes Kepler whose planetary “harmony” forms the basis for a scale (mode) of five pitches. (Berryessa had her singers vocalize all of them simultaneously as a chord of unique flavor.)

The program opened as one chorister, Michael Logue, set a mood with flutes, bells and long-held vocalizations. Berryessa then spoke briefly before leading Tormis’ “Curse Upon Iron” (from the Kalevala), a runic condemnation of war, accompanied by a drum. The solo voices sang in Estonian while the choral voices used English. Soon there were commentaries, also in English, on 19th, 20th and 21st century warfare spoken randomly at climactic points. These struck a strange counterpoint against the ritualized poetry of the first texts. The piece lasted about ten minutes, as would several other settings.

Shorter, at six minutes, was Sisask’s Benedictio, making use of his exotic scale and adding huge rhythmic demands of the choir. Likewise his Omnis Una. Pärt’s Ode VII (Memento), and his Seven Magnificat Antiphonens, made clear how much work lies ahead for these singers who, surprisingly, resorted to vibrato, which is never good for choral singing. Even more, Pärt rarely pins his musical lines to a rhythmic pulse. Without those supports, pitch became a noticeable problem within dense textures. When the moving lines were long-held, the choir was on firmer ground.

Tormis’ setting of “The Bishop and the Pagan” tells the story, from both sides, of the death of the British warrior and Christian missionary Bishop Henry at the hands of the Finnish peasant farmer Lalli near the town of Turku, in the 12th century. It deployed the eight men opposite four of the women antiphonally. For Tormis, humming is a valuable device used in several of his works, including Spring Sketches, Bridge of Song (with folk song and Kalevala verses) and the irresistible Autumn Landscapes.

I think my favorite of the afternoon was Tormis’ The Songster’s Childhood, an enchanting reminiscence of a youngster’s earliest memories.

This demanding program gave the Redwood Chamber Choir an auspicious debut. Berryessa told me that after she gives birth to her next child—sooner than later—she’ll be able to get back to work with her singers. We in the audience climbed a mountain to get there. She knows the mountain she’ll be climbing soon enough.