Bird Droppings from Estonia: Hingedeaeg
Arvamus 04 Nov 2010 Hilary BirdEWR
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Hingedeaeg – the Time of Souls – is here, the time when the borderland between the living and the dead blur. The Celts know this time as Samhain, meaning, roughly “the end of summer.” And summer seems a long way away as the nights draw in and the temperature drops and we in the north wait apprehensively for the snow. But there are compensations!

My neighbourhood smells deliciously of wood fires. The deciduous trees – and there are many - are a riot of colour and mingle harmoniously with the sedate evergreen conifers… The two birdhouses in my front garden are heaving with sparrows, great tits and nuthatches. They are so tubby that I have had to repair the little platforms on the second hand birdhouse (handed down from the Lancastrians of Ülenurme and stuffed with sunflower seeds and dried insects from Haiths of Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire) with insulating tape watched (evil gleam in eye), by the local cat population …

Amidst the graves
On Sunday I went for an impromptu stroll along the paths amidst the graves of the forest-cemetery. It was quite busy although dusk was falling - the rakes and old paint pots (that serve for buckets) that are available for use and return were being well utilised. Many folk had already come and gone, leaving graves immaculately tidy and with little candles burning … some lingered on benches by graves communing quietly with the dead including a group of three men around one headstone definitely the worse for wear. What stories graveyards tell! I was, as always, arrested by the plot of the Tolosepp family with its life size statue of Maret Tolosepp (21 May, 1936 – 15 October 1936) in her pretty little dress buttoned at the back and with (fresh) flowers in her hand. She stands on a plinth between two shorter ones inscribed (presumably) with the names of her parents, Salme and Paul, no dates given. In front of the plinths is a small stone inscribed Sirje (1949 – 1956). The grave is carefully tended … but by whom? What is the story of Salme, Paul, tiny Maret and little Sirje…

Nearby, with a handsome bust on a marble plinth, is our dear Oskar Luts (1887-1953), author of the much cherished Kevade (Spring) whose Dickensian cast of characters has long been accepted as templates for certain types of Estonians … Oskar and I share a birthday so, having taken this stroll on the spur of the moment and not having a candle for the old boy, I picked up a spruce branch – symbol of the old Estonian spirit of the forest - from near a paladin bin and placed it on the plot. Its very bad luck, I am told, to cut the branch off a living tree so I cheated. I stayed in the surnuaed (the garden of death) for about 40 minutes, just walking while the sun set.

I then passed the memorial listing the German boys who died for such a misguided cause in 1944. Some of their bodies have never been found and, in summer, wreaths with German inscriptions are often found here near the big cross. The Russian boys who died fighting for the other side have no cross – their government was atheist. But they too have a carefully tended plot with wilted red flowers, also left by summer visitors. A third memorial marks the burial place of a group of over 100 civilians brutally killed by the Soviets in 1941 as the German army advanced. A broken classical column (very Tartu!) marks the spot. The names of the murdered are written on the base. Someone had lit candles but they had gone out. I made it my business to relight them and then re-traced my steps through the trees by flickering light…

Mowgli ballet
But enough of autumnal melancholia! On Saturday I went to the big Vanemuine Theatre to see the ballet premier, Mowgli (he of Jungle Book fame) and what a great night out this was!!! This production is a fast and furious feast for the eyes and ears from start to finish and just the job to chase away the autumn blues… The work was dreamed up and produced (including the ingenious costumes) by Mare Tommingas. Mare has been working at the Vanemuine since she graduated from the Tallinn School of Choreography in 1978 – first as a dancer, then choreographer (she established the theatre’s modern dance studio in 1992) and, since 1998 as Director of Ballet. A guest choreographer, Jenny MacNamara from the UK had also been asked to create a dance in Act one. Jenny teaches and choreographs jazz, Latin and Afro-Caribbean dance at the Elmhurst Ballet School, partners of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. She has worked with community projects in SA, at Windsor Castle for HRHs Chas and Cham and for international sporting events. Several of our dancers hail from Elmhurst so, presumably, this was the connection.

The playbill says Mowgli is a story about a teenage boy who is looking for his identity and place in the human jungle. “Its not the usual jungle story - no tails, no horns,” says Mare Tommingas. “The basic idea for the production is a computer game. The Internet is almighty … but it is a medium where everything seems (and mostly is) simple and possible and the border between the real and the virtual is cloudy. I have been thinking about the lack of "real” things and emotions and what substitutes we get from the Internet, good and bad. What motivates the young of today's world, what is the understanding of relationships and oneself? What shapes our opinions? Should we let the virtual world govern us? We know that other people exist but the human touch is becoming more and more distant."

Well, there were a few horns and tails (all the better for that for we animal lovers) and Tommingas has created a marvellous ballet that works at a number of levels from the cheerful dance of the little monkeys, full of joie de vivre and played by the ballet school children having the time of their lives, the slow, sinuous, thoroughly sinister snake dance of Kaa (by a very slithery and elegantly costumed Silas Stubbs, UK) or the violent, hyper active scraps between Mowgli (Takuya Sumitomo, from Japan), Bagheera (a very svelte Kristina Markevičiute from Lithuania) and Sheer Khan (Ilya Mironov, Vaganova school, Russia). Our Brit star, Hayley Blackburn, was Jill-of-all-trades in this production – a bayadere (with not a tutu or point shoe in sight), a white cobra and a village girl, all beautifully danced à la anglais as befits a graduate of the Royal Ballet School.

Tommingas is supported by a great team – the sets by Vladimir Anshon (who has worked in Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Riga and who is also an icon painter) conjure up a dark steamy, claustrophobic place somewhere in south east Asia, complete with a herd of elephants, Indonesian silhouette shadow-puppet style; the subtle lighting and projection of computerised material (both very artistically and cost effective!) by Margus Vaigur (from the Endla Theatre in Pärnu) and, last but certainly not least, by Tauno Aints’ pacey, eclectic score – a dynamic mix of classical, jazz, rock and hip-hop. Really, in the arts, Estonia has talent in lorry loads…

Arvo Pärt’s birthday celebrations
Arvo Pärt, our national musical treasure, was 75 on 11th September and to celebrate, ETV aired some fascinating early footage including a 1979 broadcast of Pärt’s music conducted by Neeme Järvi (with hair) the year before he and Arvo left the USSR. Three wonderful pieces were dished up - Perpetuum mobile (1963), Collage sür BACH (Collage on Bach, 1964) and, what is probably Pärt’s most well-known work, the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1978-80). This was a programme showing early diversity - Perpetuum mobile dates from a serialist period that includes the awesome Symphony No. 1 (Polyphonic) – a surprise for those expecting to hear the ethereal notes of the "tintinnabuli” period, as its attitude is angry and its tone dissonant. Lepo Sumera and Alo Mattiisen, the composers of the “Singing Revolution” seem to have taken their cue very much from this early, angry Pärt. The sonorous Collage sür BACH is just what it says it is – a musical collage using material from Bach (Tchaikovsky and others were used in other pieces) incorporated into a serial structure.

My favourite piece from this period (not played, alas) is the less-than-four-minute Quintettino (1964) with its very silly jokey ending. Other programmes included the 2010 world première of Arvo’s Adam’s Lament, dedicated to Istanbul, at the International Istanbul Music Festival with some great footage of the man himself, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Vox Clamantis at work (video clip at But the best of all came on the actual birthday when a statue of a boy on a bike was unveiled in Rakvere. It is there because, when young, the composer rode around the town square listening to classical music on the public address system … a ballet for bikes called “looking straight ahead we often miss something” was composed for the occasion – see some stills at After this there was a free concert in Rakvere Sports Hall: Neeme Järvi conducted the 3rd symphony and Aarne Saluveer (a famous choir conductor in Eesti) the lovely cantata for children Meie aed, Our garden with the Symphony Orchestra of Estonia, the children’s choirs of Rakvere and Paide (where Arvo was born), the ETV girls choir and the Ellerhein girls choir ... A joy.

The new trike
Speaking of bikes... I have acquired a trike. It’s a big version of the three-wheeler I had when I was a child in Bristol. The acquisition is part of a health drive - I have had a series of long, low level ailments plus some nasty rheumatism this year and have 1) put myself on a diet and 2) am getting more exercise. I tried several times to get going on a bike but just kept riding round my friend’s field and running into the apple tree. After this had happened for the fourth time I decided that my balance (probably due to defective ears) was too poor for the job and abandoned the idea. Then I saw someone in town with an adult trike and decided to buy one- I eventually managed to get a smart red oriental number second hand from Antsla, about 50 km south of Tartu, and a very pregnant lady delivered it to my door. I am enjoying getting out and about on it enormously and its very useful too – it has an enormous basket big enough for my trips to the recycling centre, the supermarket and the post office, not to mention the fact that it is much more stable than a bike on some of the dreadful Soviet-era back roads I use. I have also bought some Nordic Walking sticks – a very cheap way of getting the circulation going! One of my trips was to Karkna, just outside of Tartu and the site of an early crusader fortified monastery. The site is really interesting. It was on the front line of frontier country between the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Russian principalities during all its 1234-1558 existence. There’s very little left now - the stone was recycled into other structures – and I had rather a struggle with weeds literally up to my eyeballs. The grave of Hermann of Buxhoeveden, first Bishop of Tartu and local leader of the Teutonic Order, is here somewhere as are the remains of what is one of Estonia’s earliest fish farms – the pool created by the Cistercians to service the requirements of their diet. Hermann led the German crusaders against Novgorod and got his come-uppance in the Battle on the Ice of nearby Lake Peipsi in 1242. He is the rotter of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevski, the big burly guy who drops live Russian babies on to a bonfire to the accompaniment of a (portable) organ played by a nasty gnarled monk. The crusaders' defeat in the battle ended campaigns against Orthodox Novgorod and other Russian territories for the next century.

My health programme includes healthy eating and trips to the local farmer’s market for seasonal goodies. I bought some wild mushrooms and plums from three ladies that must have about three centuries between ‘em. They had obviously teamed up to harvest food from the forest to sell – a very sensible initiative in a country where pensions are very measly. And there’s a lot to be said for a daft customer acquiring wild food from experts! I wouldn’t know a poisonous mush or a helpful herb if I saw one but these old girls know where the best, biggest and tastiest grub is lurking. They didn’t have much produce (I think I took at least a third of their mushrooms) but it was beautifully cleaned up and packed in plastic bags. They didn’t have a weighing machine but an obliging neighbour helped out.

I went away from their stall very pleased and later turned the lovely, yellow kukeseened /chanterelles (in a display of Finno-Ugric loyalty) into delicious Hungarian mushroom soup. All prices are now supposed to be quoted in Euros as well as kroons pending Estonia’s swap to the Euro in January. Well, you can forget that in the farmer’s market. There wasn’t one stall that obeyed regulations about any new fangled dosh. And, can you blame ‘em? My old girls must have seen at least seven changes in the currency since 1918. What’s another one to them?

Finally, one more change for me! The wood-fuel central heating system that nearly blew puss and I sky-high has been recycled to my neighbour’s brother’s house on Saaremaa in return for (an unexpected) half a shed full of wood. I have acquired a bourgeouska - a small wood-burning stove similar to a potbelly stove but mine is square. Its name is derived from the fact that poor Russians regarded it as only affordable by the middle classes. So. It is official. Regardless of my working class roots, I am now the proud owner of a bourgeouska. It’s a very efficient little thing and warms up my kitchen, sitting room and landing while my old 1930’s big brick stove (so beloved of puss) keeps the bedroom and work area toasty. So. Come winter, bring it on! I’m ready!
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