A concert off the beaten path: Neeme Järvi and other Estonians at Lincoln Center

11. november 2013.

The Estonians are a musical people, and in particular a singing people. In fact, they refer to their political stirrings from 1989 to 1991 as “the Singing Revolution.” (For a piece I did on this subject two years ago, go here.)

Estonians came to Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center on Sunday afternoon: the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. They were conducted by the veteran Estonian maestro Neeme Järvi.

He is not only a conductor but a patriarch: the father of two conductors, Paavo and Kristjan, and a flutist, Maarika. He led his national orchestra through most of the Sixties and Seventies. Then he came to the West, working in Gothenburg, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Sunday’s concert was part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. The concert had a title: “Word Made Flesh.”

It began wordlessly, though, with an overture—the Overture No. 2 by Veljo Tormis, written in 1959. Tormis is an Estonian composer, born in 1930. He is not generally a wordless composer, in that he is best known for his choral works. In any event, the Overture No. 2 was a pleasure to hear. It is tense, bracing, exciting. The listener can read, or hear, all sorts of meanings into it. Apparently, the music has to do with Estonia under the Soviets’ boot.

Under Järvi, the Estonian orchestra was amazingly precise. I thought—pardon my bluntness—“If these nobodies from an obscure corner of the world can do it, why can’t the major orchestras?”

The concert proceeded with music by Estonia’s master, Arvo Pärt, who was born in 1935. A few years ago, a reader wrote me, “Name me one great composer in the world today, and don’t say Arvo Pärt!” This was one of the funnier demands I’ve received in recent years.

The Estonian orchestra and choir performed In principio, a five-movement work from 2003. It sets John 1:1–14, to wit, “In the beginning was the Word,” etc. The work is declamatory, robust, and somewhat primitive-sounding. It is spare but not bare. It is economical but not anemic. Rests play an important role in this work, as in other compositions by Pärt. For him, silence is often golden.

Throughout In principio, there is a righteous anger. There are bristling, insistent statements. The text and the music are an odd match—but not a mismatch. The performance we heard was, as they say, “a religious experience.”

Following this was another, shorter work by Pärt, Da pacem Domine, from 2004. It is neo-Baroque, or neo-earlier—neo-Gregorian. It is a beautiful and powerful piece, and when I say “powerful,” I mean inwardly powerful.

Immediately after, Järvi conducted Mozart’s Ave verum corpus—and it was as though somebody had turned on a light. What I mean is, the Pärt piece is in D minor and darkling. The Mozart piece is in D major, and luminous.

When Järvi and his forces were done, the applause was loud and long, and they performed the work again. (It is as short as it is sublime, lasting just a few minutes.) Järvi did not conduct the piece in “period” fashion; he conducted it in musical fashion. I wager that most critics and scholars would not have liked it. I would wager even more that Mozart would have.

The crowd certainly did: They went absolutely, rock-concert nuts.

For years, I have maintained that Neeme Järvi is an underrated conductor, though he is a well-known one, and a prolific recorder. He embodies Old World style and Old World values. He brought New York something off the beaten path, in this Sunday-afternoon concert. The Mozart may be on the beaten path—but the Estonian composers, not so much.

I would have liked to hear Ave verum corpus a third time. And the other pieces again.