The only sound that could be heard between their songs, was the faint rustling of their ankle-length medieval robes and the odd squeak of a pew carried across the marble floor of the church. It was almost as if the entire audience held their breath while the six member Estonian choir Heinavanker sang a cappella selections of early sacred polyphonic music and arrangements of ancient Estonian folk hymns at St. George’s Anglican church in Montreal this past Saturday, September 17.
“2011 was a special year for Estonian Canadians,” said Montreal Estonian Society President Karl Raudsepp in his opening address. “There was the 93rd Anniversary of Estonian Independence, but on August 26th we also celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Estonia and Canada. This performance is a celebration of that event.”
Heinavanker’s first selection of the afternoon was a Estonian song that began quietly in unison, then grew dynamically until it erupted into a polyphonic work and filled the rafters of the church with overlapping melodies. Only thirty seconds into the performance the high caliber of the ensemble in terms of their togetherness was obvious. The group used the cathedral’s reverberation to their advantage, savoring pensive and elongated pauses for dramatic effect then swelling into seemingly endless layers of arched phrases embedded with agile melismas and ornamentations consistent with the rhythmic syntax of this ancient style of musical arrangement. Then, after several pieces were performed standing still in the first half of the program, Heinavanker complimented songs in the last half of the performance with subtle, slow-folk dance reminiscent choreography that added a compelling visual component to their performance without overtaking the vocal focus. A two-song encore was rounded off by throat singing, a novel acrobatic crowd-pleaser also known as overtone chanting.
Because Heinavanker brings to life a dead era by re-visiting its sounds and ideas, the group has a rather mysterious, and at times dark, aura that is perhaps equally provoking as the famous piece of fifteenth century art after which they got their name. “Haywain” by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, depicts a wagonload of hay being pulled by demons into hell to symbolize sin. Atop the wagon a group of escort musicians play beautiful music as it rolls to its own destruction, invoking a question: Is anyone is really impervious to earthly temptations? Heinavanker doesn’t promise to answer this question, but their enticing, transportive music does provide a compelling context in which to ponder it.
Heinavanker leaves Montreal Estonian community spellbound