Stanford brings top Estonian choir to Memorial Church

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The voices of the Estonian TV Girls’ Choir fill Memorial Church (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

Two dozen young women, wearing colorful dresses made from traditional Estonian striped woolen cloth, silently filed into Memorial Church on July 15 to present an a cappella concert of sacred music. Rather than form an ordinary row in front of the audience, members of the renowned Estonian TV Girls’ Choir walked up the main and side aisles and began to sing, “Wake up, my Heart” (“Mu süda ärka üles”) by the 20th-century Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek.

For the audience, literally surrounded by voices singing complex harmonies, the effect was mesmerizing. “The music was exquisite, and put me in a different mental space,” Mai-Liis Bartling, president of the San Francisco Estonian Society, said afterward. Tiina Sepp, an Estonian from San Francisco, added, “The pieces were perfect for this beautiful church with its sublime acoustics.”

The singers, ages 15 to 25, presented an hourlong program of works by prominent Baltic composers including Veljo Tormis, Arvo Pärt and Eriks Esenvalds.

University Librarian MICHAEL KELLER introduced the concert, which Stanford University Libraries sponsored to highlight its Baltic Studies collection. “We want to celebrate and emphasize the collection, which includes Latvia, Lithuania and Finland,” Keller said.

The library’s goal is to build one of the best Baltic collections of history, literature and culture housed outside the region. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, independent nations from 1920 to 1940, regained their freedom in 1991 following a half-century of Nazi and Soviet occupation. Today they are members of NATO and the European Union, and Estonia is known as one of the most tech-savvy nations in the world.

The Estonian TV Girls’ Choir was in the Bay Area to participate in the 2015 Golden Gate International Choral Festival, an event that brings together top youth choirs every three years. Assistant Conductor Karin Kuulpak, who directed the concert, said it was the group’s first performance at Stanford. The event attracted more than 600 people. “It’s an amazing church,” she said. “I liked the way the music echoed back to the singers.”

Kuulpak said Estonia’s culture of song and dance has deep roots. Since 1869, Estonians have gathered at large choral festivals every five years to sing in their native language and perform traditional folk dances. “During the Soviet times, we couldn’t fight the Russians – there were so many of them – but we could sing and dance,” she said. The late 1980s, a period when thousands of people gathered illegally at night to sing forbidden songs and fly the banned Estonian flag, is known as the Singing Revolution.

Jaak Treiman, the Estonian honorary consul in Los Angeles, said the concert held several layers of meaning for him. “It was a beautiful reminder of why we fought to regain independence,” he said. “We won back the right to travel, the right to preserve our culture and the right to freely express ourselves.”


Stanford in the Baltics

In 2013, Stanford became the first U.S. university to establish a Baltic curatorship following an endowment gift from the Kistler-Ritso Estonian Foundation. The program collects material from the Nazi and Soviet occupations, but also focuses on the Baltic nations’ successful democratic transition since 1991.

LIISI ESSE, the curator, said the collection includes more than 30,000 items and is growing quickly. In addition, the Hoover Institution Library & Archives holds primary source collections from the region, including copies of Soviet Lithuanian and Estonian KGB state security documents.

Esse said understanding Estonia’s past is essential, particularly with the increase of Russian military aggression on its border. “The history of the Baltic states is a testimony to the fact that totalitarianism cannot prevail over democracy and freedom,” Esse said. “This is an extremely important lesson, one that we have to remind ourselves of so that the past doesn’t repeat itself.”