Aarne Saluveer © Stanislav Moškov

„Spring Came Differently“

Interview with conductor Aarne Saluveer (Estonia)

World of Voices

Exactly one year ago, on May 17, 2020, Estonia stunned the world with the largest live performance of a virtual choir on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds. We talked to Aarne Saluveer, conductor, producer, educator and representative of Estonia in the World Choir Council and asked him about this special event.

by Franziska Hellwig

In 2020, the Corona Crisis had the world in suspense and in particular impacted the choral world severely. Collective singing, concerts and choir rehearsals were restricted and at times banned in many places. All this presented unprecedented challenges to the choirs of this world and pushed choir directors and singers to get creative. Estonia is a singing nation and choirs here – as well as in the rest of the world – were hit hard by the Corona crisis last year. On May 17, 2020, a special virtual concert was held at the Tallinn Song Festival grounds to celebrate the end of the first Coronavirus emergency in Estonia.

The concert, titled “Spring Came Differently,” brought together 2,500 choral singers under laulukaar (the arch of the Song Festival Grounds) in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Estonian choral singers from abroad also participated in the concert virtually. The choir, conducted by Aarne Saluveer, could be seen on the screens of nearly 1,000 tablet computers, and more than 200,000 people watched the live broadcast from the comfort of their homes. In this interview, Aarne Saluveer talks about the idea and implementation of this fascinating large-scale project and the difficult situation last year in his home country of Estonia as well as the future of the choral scene.

Estonia is a country with a rich choral culture. The restrictions of the pandemic hit your country and your choirs hard. How is your choral scene doing now? How have you overcome the past year?

There are different kinds of Christmas miracles. One of them is that in this unusual year we were able to find many extraordinary expressions of humanity and organize our lives, work and activities so that there is still music in the world, both in live performances and recordings. Inevitably, COVID caused disruptions and, as everywhere, restrictions due to the pandemic occurred in Estonia. In choir rehearsals via video platforms, we missed sound quality, conducting and dynamics, and video productions were used to try to satisfy people‘s need for music when concert halls were half-empty.

Compared to other countries, we have a small population and live at greater distances, so until mid-November the number of people in hospitals was small, but then it began to increase here as well. Estonian professional and amateur choirs had to cancel and postpone concerts and tours, as well as participation in many major international events, including the World Choir Games. The restrictions were enormous, but fortunately the Estonian Choir and Conductors Association was able to successfully negotiate with the government and receive financial support to survive the damage to musical life.

Although we were forced to cancel several invitations and concerts with the ETV Girls‘ Choir at the end of the painful year 2020, we can consider ourselves lucky and satisfied with the successes we amazingly managed to achieve after all. We have found new technical solutions to bring singers together in the virtual and real world. We were happy to be able to perform four Christmas concerts with two different programs of music from different eras and cultural areas, in a time when many events were stopped, as well as to accompany the anniversary concert of the Estonian National Male Choir on TV.

2020 has demanded a lot of stamina and creativity from singers worldwide. How have you been able to keep motivation high?

We‘re all just people – but perhaps our passion for music sometimes inspires us even more in the hardest of times. Choirs got creative and recorded videos, tried to reach new listeners, and sometimes even succeeded. Unfortunately, the weakest are the young singers whose lessons require human contact, and we will see and hear the shortcomings in the years to come of primary education. However, we also tried to keep them active through lessons in solfege, sheet music and preparation for future performances and the singers felt they belonged together, as members in a musical team should.

The concerts that were able to take place became more meaningful and valuable than before – both for the performers and the audience. Looking positively and hopefully into the future, our choral community begins preparations for the next Youth Song Celebration in Tallinn with up to 40,000 singers and dancers from schools and universities.

In May, Estonia was able to celebrate the end of the first corona emergency with a concert of a different kind. With a mixture of live performance, virtual choir live on stage and car theater, the concert “spring came differently” was something very special. How did this project and idea come about? And how could such a gigantic project be realized in such a short time?

At that time, ideas and solutions were born very quickly and were like a ray of sunshine in a stormy sky. Estonian musicologist Jaan Ross described the role of music in the 20th century: “Music tells the truth and brings people together...” Therefore, when the Prime Minister and the government wanted to send a message to the people about ending the restrictions of the pandemic, it was obvious that it would be emotionally powerful to create an unprecedented musical project. In less than a week, the recording was made and invitations were sent to participants; rehearsal performances were made in collaboration with Eesti Televisioon and IT-Solution. One question everyone asked was, “How do you feel and how was it different from normally conducting a mass choir of 25,000 singers in Laulupidu/Song Celebration when the communication with the singers was through the iPad screens?”

Before the first attempt, I felt unusually awkward and very different. It is certainly not wise to compare this to a situation where the combined choir of the Singers‘ Festival grounds is at full strength with 25,000 singers. But as soon as the virtual singers, of which we felt there were many, appeared on their iPads, waved, and showed up face to face, the communication changed, and we felt like we were making music together. The singers‘ feedback on the live broadcast was very positive, and the organizers were praised for a bold and innovative event.

What tips can you give your colleagues around the world from this project? What experiences have you been able to take with you for your work?

Music changes and changes the world. It is important to preserve the best part of tradition and to find valuable new ones. Music and technology go hand in hand, and our job is to do our best to ensure that the magic and messages of music touch the souls of as many people as possible. Take a moment. Don‘t be afraid to let yourself fall. Be grateful for all your companions and experiences. Of course, sometimes it‘s a leap into an unknown ocean – but that‘s human nature. And you know, the moment you see faces of singers and the music starts, the flight begins.

According to the classical music database Bachtrack, Arvo Pärt, the most performed contemporary composer in the world, said: “The most sensitive musical instrument is the human soul, followed by the human voice. It is necessary to purify your soul until it begins to ring.” This reflects the recognized composer‘s deeper understanding of music and its beginnings, which lie within the human being himself – both in our material, physical being, and in that elusive something that makes us human and gives us the ability not only to make music, but to understand it, as well as to understand ourselves and others through music.

The pandemic was and is a drastic experience for mankind. How has the choral scene in your country changed as a consequence of the crisis? What will choral work look like in the future?

What the pandemic leaves us with are two types of learnings – depression (how to deal with the situation) and innovation (how to adapt and use it for some kind of evolution).  People‘s inner beliefs and attitudes determine whether the glass is half full or half empty. In reality, for professionals as well as amateurs, there are some similar but also some very different effects. While professional musicians have lost their regular jobs and the income that goes with them (to some extent) they have been able to better maintain their professional skills. Amateurs on the other hand have suffered more from the loss of rehearsals and a lack of concert quality and social interaction.

We need to remember that we are positive opinion leaders and responsible role models - so we care about our communities, their health and emotions. We rely on vaccines - but nature is still one step ahead of us. So, we are hopeful and grateful for the precious moments so far. If the new normal limits travel and large gatherings in the future, then any performance of live music will become much more valuable than before. Me and my colleagues will do my best to make 2021 a memorable year for music – there are events on the calendar and scores on the stands – but we must always be prepared that not everything will turn out the way we want it to.

Do you think there is a positive aspect that remains for the choirs from this crisis?
What could that be?

While most of us usually prefer to communicate through music, now we especially need to find time for verbal communication and interaction. The most important positive aspect, from my point of view, is that our passion for music is even stronger and there is no virus that can stop us from being human or stop the music in our soul. There are many other aspects, but in particular the drive for innovation has grown, the progress of developing and using new IT solutions and also the focus on developing new event formats for competitions, workshops and master classes. Conductors are looking for clever ways to attract and motivate singers and audiences, and singers are realizing the importance of live contact with the conductor and how much energy they need to invest to increase their individual quality.

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