Under Western eyes

Now that Estonia has shed its Soviet shackles, its emigre artists are returning to find their Baltic roots. Nick Kimberley meets conductor Paavo Jarvi and composer Erkki-Sven Tuur

Ask anyone here what they know about Estonia, and they'll probably mention the football team that didn't turn up, and that'll be it. Estonia itself has been something of a football over the centuries, kicked back and forth between Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Germany. A brief flowering of independence after 1918 ended with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Estonia became a Soviet Socialist Republic (albeit overrun by the Nazis during the war). Yet seven centuries of occupation failed to extinguish a sense of nationhood, and in 1991 Estonia abandoned Soviet status in favour of a precarious independence.

A cornerstone of that sense of nationhood has been a thriving musical culture, symbolised by the longstanding tradition of national song festivals in which up to 30,000 singers perform before crowds numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Not for nothing was the transition from Soviet rule dubbed "The Singing Revolution". Music continues to play a vital part in forming Estonian culture, even though many Estonian musicians emigrated to escape the straitjacket of Soviet musical policy, or the horrors of Nazism.

In 1980 the conductor Neeme Jarvi left with his family, including his son Paavo; the composer Arvo Part followed within days. Now that Estonia has reclaimed its freedom, some of those emigres are, in their turn, reclaiming their heritage or, as a new CD of Estonian music titles itself, "searching for roots". The collection presents one emigre, Paavo Jarvi, conducting music by two others: the 11th Symphony which Eduard Tubin left unfinished at his death in 1982; and two early works from the Sixties by Arvo Part, Nekrolog and the First Symphony, both of which offended Soviet orthodoxy with their "decadent" espousal of serialism.

If these works look to the past, Jarvi's anthology hints at the future by including three other pieces by Erkki-Sven Tuur, a younger composer (born 1959) who has lived in Estonia all his life, and whose Searching for Roots give the CD its title. For Jarvi, there's a thread - "a sort of spiritual connection" - uniting all three men: "Tubin was a great symphonist," he explains, "a godfather for Estonian music of this century. Part was influenced by him; they were in a way spiritual brothers, which Part acknowledged by dedicating one of his series of pieces called Fratres to Tubin after his death. Part himself became a kind of guru to the next generation, including Erkki-Sven Tuur. So there is an obvious line of succession."

Tuur acknowledges that legacy, but is not bound by it: "Tubin and Part had the same teacher, Heino Eller, who also taught both my composition professors, Lepo Sumera and Jaan Raats. So you might treat the music on this CD as the output of one 'school'. But I dislike these umbrellas, and I'm going, absolutely consciously, along my own way. Part certainly prepared the way for contemporary Estonian music, and in the late 1970s his magnificent Tabula rasa influenced many of us, and I include myself. Now, though, a younger generation has emerged, and there is a variety of different styles, so we can't say that the Part style dominates."

Shortly after recording the CD last year with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (of which he is principal guest conductor), Paavo Jarvi returned to Estonia to conduct an Estonian orchestra for the very first time. It was also the first time he'd ever worked with an orchestra in Estonian. "It was an important moment for me. I felt anxious and nervous. These musicians had known me since I was five - I grew up watching them rehearse with my father. But the orchestra was very good, and I felt good, physically and mentally. That trip was the first of what I hope will be frequent visits there."

More recently, Jarvi took up the post of principal guest conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. One of the first pieces he conducted with them was Tuur's Zeitraum (the closing item on his new CD) and there is a liberal scattering of Nordic composers in his repertoire: his CBSO concert tomorrow night includes pieces by Nielsen, Berwald and Stenhammar. This is clearly a point of policy: "People outside the Nordic countries simply don't consider them a real part of Europe. At best they're distant provinces: I'm still asked if there is ever any summer there. Now they're making a strong effort to have a more European, a more international presence. In terms of music, it helps that there are so many Nordic artists making a name for themselves: composers, conductors, performers - they command attention. And it's not superficially created, as can happen in France, Britain or Germany, where there is the geographical muscle to create that kind of national presence."

At the same time, Jarvi won't be pigeonholed: "I have nothing against being considered a Nordic musician. In fact, I'm very proud of it. But I will not restrict myself to Nordic repertoire. Arvo Part is Estonian, but to call his music Nordic is misleading, nor should we look for anything particularly Estonian in his music. I hear it simply as Arvo Part. Yet Estonia has always had a strong musical culture. Perhaps it's because a certain cultural heritage was carried over from the Germans, the Swedes, the Danes, the Russians. In any case, Estonian musical life has always looked westwards, even during the Soviet era."

It's a point echoed by Tuur: "My first musical experience was with a group I set up in 1979, In Spe, playing what I called 'chamber rock'. That was a good laboratory for a beginning composer, to have an idea one evening, and take it into rehearsal the next day, to test how it really worked. Then I went to the Tallinn Conservatory, where I had good teachers who were very open to Western musical culture, insofar as they could find out about it: it was hard to see scores, but it was possible to get recordings. So in the early 1980s I was influenced by Ligeti and Xenakis as well as by Reich and Glass. I'm still keen on remaining open to all possibilities as a way towards a personal style: I enjoy moving between simpler, more tonal structures, and complex atonal passages, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly, but consistently."

With commissions coming in from all sides (David Geringas recently premiered his Cello Concerto in Lausanne), and his music recorded on several labels (ECM as well as EMI), Tuur has benefited from Estonian music's higher visibility in the West: "If economic structures change, then so does cultural life. Nobody in the West can understand the absurdity we had to live with in Soviet times. For one thing, we couldn't invite foreign artists: all that was controlled from Moscow. Now, in an open society, the arts are developing in another way: artists find they are responsible to quite different criteria. Although there are always problems in getting money, there are more possibilities for financial support. Our government understands that, with a population of only a million or so, such a small nation can only be great through its culture. That's a real national value."

Jarvi, meanwhile, draws a parallel between Estonia's "Singing Revolution" and Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution". "They were both bloodless, a smooth transition, people showing their will in a way that was nationalistic and cultural yet without confrontation. I read that the Czech Republic and Estonia are now the fastest growing, most dynamic of the ex-Soviet satellite states. That's an interesting similarity. Even so, nobody is going to be amazed by Estonia's business, the volume of its industrial production: there simply aren't the human resources. What will put the Baltic countries on the map are the arts." And he's clearly very happy about thatn

Paavo Jarvi conducts the CBSO 7pm tomorrow, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-212 3333). 'Searching for Roots' is on Virgin Classics 7243 5 45212 2

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine