The CultureMap Interview

Singing mobs inspire a wave of change: Concert celebrates peaceful revolution through music

Singing mobs inspire change: Concert celebrates peaceful revolution

Paul Hillier
Renowned English choral conductor Paul Hillier makes his Houston Chamber Choir debut in a concert titled "Music of Baltic Nations." Photo by Ditte Capion
Houston Chamber Choir
The Houston Chamber Choir. Photo by Jeff Grass
Houston Chamber Choir presents "Baltic Sea Change" with guest conductor Paul Hillier
"Music of Baltic Nations" celebrates courage through the music of Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Galina Grigorjeva, Rytis Mazulis and Algirdas Martinaitis. Courtesy of Stina Funch, Atwater, Inc.
Paul Hillier
Houston Chamber Choir
Houston Chamber Choir presents "Baltic Sea Change" with guest conductor Paul Hillier

In the 1980s, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania staged coups against their Soviet oppressors, music became a source of unity as the trio of Baltic nations regained control of their own destiny.

The Singing Revolution, which describes events between 1987 and 1991 and impromptu "singing mobs" protests, re-established the area's choral traditions as a non-violent independence movement, a wave of change that also introduced the region's music to the world.

The Singing Revolution re-established the area's choral traditions as a non-violent independence movement.

Renowned English choral conductor Paul Hillier makes his Houston Chamber Choir debut in a concert titled "A Sea Change: Music of Baltic Nations," a program that celebrates courage through the music of Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Galina Grigorjeva, Rytis Mazulis and Algirdas Martinaitis.

The concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the South Main Baptist Church.

Hillier, a pioneer in the genre with more than 100 recordings and two Grammy awards, offered his thoughts in an email interview ahead of his performance with Houston's oldest professional chamber choir.

CultureMap: Given the program, I'm curious about how the culture of the region is reflected in the music. Is there a particular sound/music aesthetic in the art of the Baltic region? What surprised you most as you delved more and more into this music?

Paul Hillier: When I started working regularly with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in 2001, I made a decision to explore with them the music of that whole region, including Finland and Russia as well as the three Baltic States. This then developed into a plan to make a series of CDs exploring music from all the way around the Baltic Sea. It's a region that has long fascinated me, and now that I live in Denmark (at the other end from Estonia) that interest has become more intense and deeply rooted.

Each of the Baltic States has its own very well defined culture and language. Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are not at all closely related linguistically. Estonia and Latvia both have strong choral traditions that culminate every few years in mass choral celebrations. During the 1980s, these became important occasions for asserting national identity as well.

I know less about the choral tradition within Lithuania, but I was strongly attracted to the choral music I found there because it was focused on minimalism in a way that connected it to the American variety, yet very much with its own accent and attitude.

If there is a Baltic sound (eastern Baltic) then it is a cross-fertilization of local details: The experience of folk-singing in children's choirs (producing quite a straight sound), and the rather back-throated vowels and yet strong facial-mask resonance of the spoken language.

CM: What are some interesting differences in conducting vocal versus instrumental ensembles?

PH: With a choir, you are justified in asking the singers to look up, both to watch the beat and also to project their singing to the audience. The biggest difference with an instrumental ensemble is that normally they do not look up — not in the same way — and for good reason. Nonetheless, when I see orchestras with players whose faces are lifted, who visibly seem to be listening to what's going on around them, it makes an enormous difference to the music's impact.

I think perhaps the conductor gets too much attention, visually, and the singers and players need to grab more of the limelight. But these are observations, not criticisms!

CM: There seems to be a high likelihood for musicians that have a penchant for early music to also be quite interested in new music. In your case, what attracted you to the bookends of music history, and do you think you'll get to the "middle" some day?

PH: I am equally interested in the whole bookshelf. I studied the full range of standard repertoire (though primarily as a singer) and now, even more than ever, I listen to 19th-century orchestral and chamber music probably more than anything else.

"I like working with different choirs because of the differences between them and to find what unique qualities we can create together."

In my case however, new music and early music are not "add-ons" but of equal significance to the middle. There are two reasons why I do not perform more of it (the middle). First, I am not an orchestral conductor (unfortunately!). And second, because I like to work with voices and words, texts, stories and so on, that returns me time and again both to early music and to new music.

We live in an incredibly rich period of music, and I find it vitally important to be involved in what's going on. I have very strong views about the "disconnect" between modern music and the audience, and so my role in all that is to try and demonstrate, through performance, just how beautiful and vibrant new music can be. And here I'm talking about Berio, Birtwistle and Xenakis, just as much as Reich, Pärt and Adams.

CM: Who was the first person that helped you develop a love for music? How did they influence you?

PH: It's hard to say because I cannot remember a time when music was unimportant to me. At school, two of the "masters" — one of them taught history, the other Latin and Greek — nurtured my interest in very meaningful ways, as did a local church organist who taught me music theory for free after weekly choir practice.

Apart from that the deepest influences came from hearing certain performers, both live and on recordings, and of those I should mention Alfred Deller, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Gérard Souzay and Pierre Bernac.

CM: First time in Houston and first time conducting the Houston Chamber Choir: How do you get started with an ensemble you've never worked before? Are there certain "Paul Hillier" principles you often try to get across to the musicians?

PH: In fact it's not my first time in Houston — I was there with the Hilliard Ensemble about 25 plus years ago.

 "I will make a return visit to the Rothko Chapel, and then any antiquarian bookshops I can find."

The first thing about working with a new group is to take them through one of the pieces and listen to what they do and how they react to what I do. Although I always make a rehearsal plan in terms of which order to do things, from that point on it's a question of reacting to circumstances. I'm not aware of having any "principles" or of trying to create "my" sound — though I probably do both of these things unconsciously. I like working with different choirs because of the differences between them and to find what unique qualities we can create together.

Nearer to the concert, but not at the last moment, I will do a run-through of the program, so that we all find out what kind of energy reserves are needed, and how the pieces feel a little different when taken straight on without allowing yourself to stop and make a correction.

CM: Will you eat barbecue or real Tex Mex while in town? Is there something about Houston you are looking forward to experiencing outside of this concert?

PH: In regards to food, I haven't planned anything specific, except I shall certainly be on the lookout for really good ethnically Mexican cuisine.

As for the city, I will make a return visit to the Rothko Chapel, and then any antiquarian bookshops I can find. I am not a very good tourist, so I probably won't go to the more conventional art galleries or museums, but if I can find something that focuses on local history, that will certainly interest me.

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The Houston Chamber Choir presents "A Sea Change: Music of the Baltic Nations" on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at the South Main Baptist Church. Tickets are $40 for general admission, $36 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-5566.