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Monday, February 4, 2008

Sweden – February 3/4, 2008

This was a St. Jacobs /Gary Graden /Urmas Sisask weekend, and a delightful one.

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer, not nearly as well known (even in Estonia) as his other countrymen such as Tormis and Kreek. Born in 1960, he graduated in composition from the Tallin Conservatory in 1985, but his most important developments happened in 1987-88, when on his own he was studying Gregorian chant, early polyphony, dance rhythms from the renaissance, early baroque monody, madrigals from the 16th century, and the music of Tormis and Pärt. Combined with his love of astronomy, he developed a theoretical system that gave him a “planetary scale.” Finally, this came down to five pitches: F#, G#, A, C#, and D (he later discovered, to his surprise, that it is identical to the Japanese Kumayoshi mode). In 1988 he composed his Gloria Patri, which consists of settings of 24 Latin texts for choir and vocal quartet.

Saturday night’s concert consisted of 18 of these 24 hymns, in a concert lasting a little more than an hour. Gary performed it with an octet (of which he was a member), rather than a larger choir, which worked fantastically from the standpoint of tuning (they were seated in a semi-circle, using music stands with stand lights). Since the music is primarily 4-part, most of the lines were doubled, except for more obvious solo lines. This was accompanied by a series of slides projected on a screen at the front of the church of gorgeous images of galaxies and star clusters taken from the Hubble telescope. The effect was wonderful, particularly since the concert started at 3 PM with ambient light from outside the church gradually turning to total darkness by the end of the performance. It was meditative and inspiring.

The music itself is minimalist, perhaps closest to Pärt, but still its own, unique style. There’s a lot of repetition of short phrases and all the pitches are limited to the scale listed above (Gary says for tuning purposes, they think of most of the music as in f# minor, with some pieces more clearly D major). The early music influences are obvious, with some Gregorian lines, a fugue, a passacaglia, Venetian school double choir, and some with dance rhythms.

The performance was terrific: wonderful sound, tuning, dynamic shape, and drama, within the limits of the music. The entire atmosphere worked together, the ambiance and great acoustics in the church, the projections of the galaxies on the screen, the change from outside light to darkness—and midway through the piece you could also sense that the audience had become “entrained,” tuned together through the music (there were about 300 present). Having done Pärt’s Passio (particularly in one performance at St. James Cathedral in Seattle where the clergy followed the Stations of the Cross during the performance) and Ivan Moody’s Passion and Resurrection in Edmonton, I know it’s not easy to create such an atmosphere, to allow the audience to enter that particular world. Very magical.

Afterwards, we went with Gary and a few of the singers to an Italian restaurant not far away. It had begun to snow during the concert, so we walked through the falling snow to the restaurant. They couldn’t seat all of us at the same table, so Gary, his wife Maria, and Kathryn and me sat together with Urmas. Urmas was a little shy at first, I think partly because he doesn’t speak English or Swedish (and we certainly don’t speak Estonian), so we communicated in German. He gradually became more and more animated, so one could get a true sense of his excitement for his work, for looking at the stars, and his impish sense of humor. We talked about the differences between performing with the full choir and a small ensemble and he said the fifths (and his eyes sparkled as he demonstrated the effect) “buzzed,” they were so in tune. Quite simply, a delightful time getting to know him a bit better and enjoying our wonderful friends. Walking back through the falling snow just added to the magic.

This afternoon’s concert was a solo piano performance by Urmas of his own music, the same slides providing a visual accompaniment. He gave program notes before each piece (in Estonian, of course) with Jaan Seim translating. Jaan is a long-time singer in EEKK and currently the choir’s president—he’s also Rektor (principal) of the Estonian school in Stockholm. Urmas’s piano music is varied and based around his experience of the planets and galaxies. Urmas had said the night before that he’s not a professional pianist, but he’s accomplished. He often “conducted” (the music, the piano, the universe?) with his free hand, and created some quite interesting musical effects. In a few pieces he played inside the piano as well. There is still evident the influence of early music, but the music is clearly conceived for the piano. His sense of humor was also evident, particularly near the end. In one of the pieces, which he said demonstrates the notes present in the universe that one cannot hear, be began with his piano bench far to the left of the keyboard, “playing” in the air. He gradually moved the bench to the right, first playing just the right hand of the two short phrases in the lowest register of the piano, gradually moving up the keyboard, octave by octave, until he was on the right side of the keyboard, again “playing” in the air. He gave three encores, the first a neo-baroque piece, quite lovely. The second, called “Big Bang” (he gave the title in English) was a massive cluster, which he let die away . . . then jumped up with a grin and bowed. The final “encore” consisted of him sitting down seriously at the keyboard, pausing for a moment, gently closing the lid, then jumping up with a grin again for a bow. The smaller audience (about 100) loved the performance. I heard lots of Estonian afterward in people greeting Urmas, but lots of Swedes, too. His small number of piano CDs sold out rather quickly, so Kathryn and I didn’t get there in time.

As I’ve said before, Gary does some of the most creative and interesting work you’ll see and hear anywhere. It was great fun to be a part of it.

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