Welcome to the 21st Century!
Or should we say, welcome back to the sixties!
Either could have been the battle cry for about 40 stalwart choristers as they let loose with songs from the Age of Rock, wearing beads and Afros, waving their arms and looking blissful.
In their annual musical production at Estonian House on May 28, the Toronto Estonian mixed choir “Ööbik” (“Nightingale”) took a step into the present as well as a leap into the past – a present tolerant of eclectic musical styles in concert performance and a past going back to childhood for most and pre-birth for some.
The show, probably the choir’s 15th under the Simmaree banner, was called “Igavene Suvi” – “The Endless Summer” and echoed material presented by the Beach Boys in their 1974 album by that name. Not unlike previous Simmarees, it also presented a story line with three settings – the summers of 2011, 1967 and, once again, 2011 although the chronology of the musical material wasn’t exactly representative of the time periods. The script by Tiina Pedel and Rosemarie Lindau provided us with romance and humour.
For the regularly conservative audiences (jacket and tie), an annual Estonian choral concert featuring a sometime rock band backing up a choir that last year did exerpts from operas might be a bit disconcerting (pardon the pun!). All right, no punk or heavy metal, as favoured in Estonia, but many of the numbers were a far cry from the local Esto musical norm.
Looking back over the programme, I can’t say the show was solely devoted to rock. But neither was ”Hair”, the breakthrough , ”tribal” rock musical of the sixties that the 1967 segment brought to mind. (Remember the nudity and dope? No? Sorry, I forgot, you weren’t born then.) But all it takes is one song. Take your pick – the Nightingale choir’s rendition of the Best of the Beach Boys or Johnny Kidd’s classic Shakin’ All Over. The latter was offered by a Tina Turnerish Rosie Lindau, a super soloist and also, along with Asta Ballstadt, the choir’s conductor.
The whole show somehow felt “young” but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I realized it was the ubiquitous dancing quartet led by Triin Martin who also sang the first solo. Because they were in motion, the dancers - Triin, Maarika Lepik, Heli Timusk and Uku Vainik - became the objects of our attention – as we just listened to the choir. So these youngsters were creating the atmosphere for this middle-aged chorus!
The stage decorations by Anne Meema were stunning in a semi-psychedelic way, thanks partly to the lighting designed by Peeter Piil whose preference for coloured lights helped create these youngish faces in the choir. Smiles awash in soft light were wrinkle-fee and the faces looked youthfully happy. There were choristers singing along with their mothers and a few students from Estonia who connect with Ööbik via the Tartu College student hotel-dorm. But this generational choral component always lends a needed sense of reality to the whole ensemble.
Accompaniment for the choir, provided by Charles Kipper on grand piano, Peeter Kopvillem on guitar, Erik Soostar on electric bass and Tõnis Tõllasepp on drums, was simply good. This backing gave the choir and the smaller groups a total sound that is rare in Esto shows in Eesti Maja.
Lets talk about duets. Mati Matsoo and Reet Lindau-Voksepp together again in costume, same as last year, appeared more cohesive. Maybe it was the song, a hit from the sixties called “Summer Wine”. Soprano Reet in her low register was more compelling and Mati in the Lee Hazlewood/Johnny Cash mode came off as an excellent country bass. Mati in the role of a dissolute cowboy who lost his silver spurs to the female deceiver was in his element.
The other “duet” was the love story between Laine and Endel, as embodied by Heli and Illar Tenno. Most of it was dialogue but there was a musical moment for Heli as she sang Rein Rannap’s ,”Raagus sõnad” ( Lifeless words).
Three ensembles from the choir had their musical moments in the sun and veteran soprano Tamara Norheim-Lehela painted a summer night in Estonia in the 30’s with Tuudur Vettik’s ,,Noktürn”. Conductor Rosie’s solo on “Mis värvi on armastus?” (What Colour Is Love?) was just one of many upbeat compositions from Estonia in the programme. Even though two of the songs sung in English, “Both Sides Now” and “Summer Wine” have Estonian lyrics, the programme had the minimum Estonian feel for the discerning mother-tongue oriented listener.
Europop made the grade with a couple of Abba tunes, which served the programme well, since the show finished with a reprise of Dancing Queen.
What other Esto choir has an otherwise staid audience stand up and wave their arms to a teen-age beat?
Feeling upbeat after the show, I wandered around the grand hall of Esto House finishing my beer as people were slowly leaving and choir members were starting to clean up. The walls were still decorated with original programme artwork by Tõnu Altosaar (bass section) going back a decade or more of Simmarees. I hugged a few friends and thought to myself: What a great love-in!
Nightingale dares to be different