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Revalia, the 17-Year Old Conductor, and the Jealous Tubas and French Horns

Caption: Revalia Male Choir from Estonia, Conductor Hirvo Surva, centre, front row.

From Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who played Bach in the cross-fire erupted streets of war-torn post-Olympics Sarajevo, to the non-jingoistic Country & Western ballads (and the responses to them by hip progressives like Neil Young) during America’s unprovoked attack on Iraq, musicians with a social conscience continue to perform for greater social purposes beyond entertainment. During the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the pocket-sized, near-powerless Batlic states maintained a vibrant psychological resistance through singing choral music, plain and simple, heroically and musically. That politically aware music making in groups has earned a societal significance far more powerful than most political movements. So the back story is great and inspiring.

Drawing on a long tradition of sacred Eastern Catholic and folk vocal music, singing groups, particularly in Estonia, have maintained a vital creative connection to the community, and today continue to be a powerful outlet for contemporary music and artistic and social independence. One of the finest of these is Revalia, a symphonic-level male choir which performed handsomely last Saturday in Shaughnessy Heights United. Based in Talinn, Estonia and led by the imposing and compelling conductor Hirvo Surva, this remarkable group has become world famous for sterling performances of contemporary, classical and traditional music. Here, they sang the more patriotically inspired contemporary sounds from the Baltics and Scandinavia, including the severely 70’s sounds of the revered Estonian composer Veljo Tsoaring. Almost all the pieces had ties to the choral singing that kept Estonians aware of their roots, even during Soviet occupation. Too much of this kind of music can be difficult for an audience and that was our lot. For the sake of aesthetic contrasts we would have liked to also hear the soaring renaissance polyphony of Palistrina which was included in the concerts Revalia performed in Oregon and elsewhere on this tour.  

While there were not enough contrasts in the Vancouver concert, both in terms of programming and also musical styles, there was the amusement factor of hearing our own otherwise wonderful Chor Leoni perform under a member of the Chor at the beginning of the concert as though they had been eating too much fast food all day during a workshop with Revalia. The Chor was perhaps trying for subtle and came across as more or less weak. I never heard a Scottish ballad sung so much on the side of wimp.  

Ah, the difference a conductor makes: dramatically, the Chor members redeemed themselves when they joined Revalia at the end of the concert and rose their testosterone readings up a notch or two. And although conductor Surva paid so little attention to the consonants, Chor Leoni and a few Revalia fellows inspired by the Chor’s attempts were fighting back with “st” and “d” and “t” just where they should be, and precisely together. Diane Loomer, conductor of Chor Leoni, trains the Chor members well. Their most valiant efforts were appreciated during the ultra-famous Bieble Ave Maria. 

Don’t get me wrong, all night long we could hear vast numbers of tubas and French horns in jealous rapture outside in the torrents of the Pineapple Express. They were accompanied by sirens of the sea in vocal envy during most of the concert. 

One simply could have been happier with some more clarity from conductor Surva because it would yield more precise consonants from the 28 expert singers, apprehensive at the ends of phrases as to whether to enunciate or swallow the ends of words in order to not show vocal disunity, fearful of not enunciating simultaneously. Sad to say, the audience did not always hear a giant chord with a frame of simultaneous consonants. Still, with the 28 Revalia men most chords were gigantic and rich anyway, richer than most in the Universe. A few consonants on the most obvious songs with well known Latin phrases would have really got the goose bumps going though. The popular Biebel Ave Maria was the piece in which Chor Leoni saved the consonants simultaneously—and saved the day. 

But the audience will never forget in the middle of the proceedings, the fellow approaching from the back row, the 17-year old from the second tenor section taking the podium, carefully putting aside his own music folder and the entire conductor’s stand. He then proceeded to conduct from memory and achieve world-class clarity, left-handed at that. We heard consonants and the chords were ipso facto richer, even more in tune. He outshone his justifiably proud mentor, all with the aplomb of a genius sans ego. The choir sang every note with clarion timbre, and the devilish multiple rhythms were handled by this young conductor with nothing but precision itself. Phew!

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