Unistus Chamber Choir: The Estonian Connection

Oregon City-based chorus returns to its music's homeland and the world's largest choral festival.

Lonnie Cline leads Unistus Chamber Choir.

Lonnie Cline leads Unistus Chamber Choir.

On Monday, June 16, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s OPB PLUS will air the premiere of the new documentary To Breathe as One, which tells the story of the world’s largest choral gathering, Estonia’s Laulupidu, as seen through the eyes of an American student choir during the 2009 edition of the festival, held every five years since 1869.

Occurring over a weekend in a park in Tallinn, this year’s 26th festival, which occurs July 4-6, features an astonishing 1046 choirs, 32,000 singers, 654 dance groups and 10,000 dancers, plus 500 music ensembles, performing before an estimated total of half a million spectators over the three days. Only 54 of the participating groups originate from outside Estonia, and only six choirs are coming from the United States. One of them is from Oregon.

And just as Estonia, a tiny (population 1.5 million) country from an obscure corner of Europe, produces a disproportionate amount of superior choral music for a country its size, Oregon City harbors a startlingly accomplished and unique chorus that flies under the radar amid choir-crazed greater Portland’s manifold choral glories. Named for the Estonian word for “dream,” Unistus Chamber Choir has sung music from Estonia and beyond for over two decades.

At its concert Sunday at Milwaukie Lutheran Church, where the group sang some of the music it will be performing on its upcoming Estonian tour, it was easy to hear why the choir survived a tough audition process to become one of the only American choirs at this year’s Laulupidu. Although only a few Unistus singers evinced the big, ringing voices emblematic of the state’s professional, all-star aggregations, at this performance (the only one I’ve heard) the choir exhibited rhythmically secure, tight ensemble, with clear diction (even when singing in Estonian), solid tone, excellent balance and exciting enthusiasm. I was especially impressed by Villem Kapp’s stormy “Pohjaraanik”  and some of the contemporary Estonian songs (by Veljo Tormis, second only to the venerated Arvo Part as the greatest living Estonian composer, and Jaan Pehk) in the second half. The choir also sang works by American and other composers, as it will on tour.

Credit longtime artistic director Lonnie Cline for shaping an ensemble (actually, three, because the men’s and women’s separate choirs also qualified) supple enough to survive a tough audition process to qualify for the festival for the fourth time since Cline, who retired last year after 33 years teaching music at Clackamas Community College (which produced most of Unistus’s members), founded it in 1999. The Portland Estonian dance troupe Tulehoidjad opened the concert with some fun folk dances accompanied by guitar and accordion.

Laulupidu 2009.

Laulupidu 2009.

“Even when you often find tears in your eyes, my Estonia, oh hope; times will soon change…. In time, right will prevail.”

Many of the 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century Estonian songs Cline chose for the program (like Aleksander Kunileid’s “Sind Surmani,” above) referred, obliquely or overtly, to resisting foreign domination. As chronicled in the 2007 documentary The Singing Revolution (made by the same team that made the new film), choral music plays a tremendously significant role in Estonian culture, as it’s long been the vehicle for a relatively defenseless little country to resist foreign occupiers, from the Danes to the Germans to the Russians. As Tormis says in the new documentary, during the early 1990s uprising against the collapsing Soviet empire that had dominated the country since its brutal 1940 invasion killed or displaced a quarter of the population, the Estonians “sang their way to freedom.”

Shortly thereafter, conductor Bruce Browne led Portland State University’s internationally acclaimed chorus to Laulupidu in 1991, one of the first American choirs to sing there. Cline heard the Estonian Philharmonic Choir sing a couple years later and instantly fell for Estonian music, and since then his Unistus choir has forged lasting ties between Oregon and Estonia. The singers will reinforce that choral connection in a couple of weeks as they return to the Baltic birthplace of the music they cherish, breathing as one with their Estonian comrades in song.

Update: Read my Wall Street Journal feature on the 2014 Laulupidu and Unistus’s appearance.

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