Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Men's Choir Symbolizes Soul, Dignity of Estonia

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 1, 2004 - 9:48:04 PM in news_2004

(first published in The Cincinnati Post Sept. 2004)

They don’t call it RAM for nothing.  Short for Rahvusmeeskoor (“national men’s choir” in Estonian), RAM stands for Estonian National Male Choir, a force in the tiny country on the Baltic for over half a century.

   Founded in 1944, the year Soviet tanks rolled in to the capital city of Tallinn to seal the Communist takeover of Estonia, RAM has symbolized Estonia‘s national feelings, carried on her vital singing tradition and provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people.

   The 54-voice choir, the world’s only full-time professional male choir, makes its debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by music director Paavo Järvi at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.

   Estonian born Järvi will lead the CSO and choir in the CSO premiere of Jean Sibelius’ dramatic symphony “Kullervo” (about a tragic hero of the Finnish epic “Kalevala”).

   Soloists are mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and baritone Jaako Kortekangas.  It signals an auspicious start for Järvi’s fourth season as CSO music director.

   “It’s something I can’t wait to do,” said Järvi, who won a Grammy with RAM, the Ellerhein Girls’ Choir and Estonian National Orchestra in February for their Virgin Classics recording of Sibelius Cantatas.

   Järvi has also recorded “Kullervo” with RAM for a 1997 Virgin Classics recording with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

   Tenor William Vesilind can’t wait to do “Kullervo” either.

   The only American member of the choir, Vesilind, 26, joined RAM in spring 2003, after the Grammy-winning CD was made.  “I have never worked with him (Järvi), but as a musician, I know him well and respect his level of excellence.  We are grateful to have the chance to work with him again.”

   How Vesilind – “Rolling Estonian” is his online name – got into the Estonian choir says a lot about RAM’s own level of excellence.

   Of mixed heritage – his father is Estonian, his mother American – Vesilind moved to Estonia in March 2001.  He began looking for a job, mostly without luck because he had not mastered the language.  In 2002 he heard of an opening in RAM.

   “I immediately began to train my voice, as I had heard wonderful things about the group.”

   Vesilind, son of Priit Vesilind, longtime writer and photojournalist for National Geographic, had been a boy soprano soloist with the Washington Camerata and several other groups that toured Europe in the early ‘90s.  He had given up the thought of a professional singing career and majored in bass trombone at the University of Miami School of Music, where he also sang in the Men’s Ch0orale.

   He auditioned for RAM and was turned down.

   “I was told I had a fine voice, but it wasn’t powerful enough.”  He was given two months of free vocal training, after which he re-auditioned and was accepted.

   “I have learned volumes about choral singing,” he said.

   “RAM has an amazingly arduous work and concert schedule” (60-80 concerts a year, including international tours and recording).  Many of our concerts include “completely new material.  We rely heavily on sight-reading ability and quick learning and have to remain flexible in order to accomplish the quality level which is expected from our group.”

   RAM is an elite choir in a country of many choirs – arguably more per capita than any country in the world, most whom take part in Estonia’s famous Song Festival, held every fifth year in the imposing song festival amphitheater in Tallinn.

   With about 45 male choirs, Estonia’s male choir tradition “is in some measure stronger than other nations,” said chief conductor Ants Soots, a professor at the Estonian Academy of Music in Tallinn. 

   Then there is RAM’s own history and tradition.  Founder/composer Gustav Ernesaks, who died in 1993 at the age of 85, became a legend in Estonia.  His “powerful personality, great music and craving for freedom” heartened his countrymen during the years of Russian domination, said Soots.  “He was like a lighthouse in the fight against Russification.”

   It was Ernesaks who kept the song festivals going and made them a focus of Estonia’s hope for freedom.  RAM played a powerful role in that, said Järvi, who attended Song Festivals as a child in Estonia and made his Song Festival conducting debut at the most recent event in July.

   “It became a symbol of independence and strength and sort of not backing down.  In Soviet times, when people were not allowed to gather with more than three people, you had a hundred m en onstage.  It was almost an army, but they were singing and not carrying guns.  It was very emotional for Estonians.”

   RTAM’s repertoire is huge, from Gregorian chant to contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, with an emphasis on different styles and cultures, said Soots, who keeps the Grammy in RAM’s office in his study.  Singing Old Finnish in “Kullervo” is a piece of cake, relatively speaking, since Estonian is very similar to Finnish.  More difficult are “Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Archaic Norwegian, Japanese, etc.” he said.

      RAM has 18 CDs to its credit and has begun recording all the major works for male choir and orchestra, a project that likely will take 20 years to complete, Soots said.

“The quality of Estonian singing may be partly attributable to the country’s northern climate, said Vesilind, who “absolutely loves the cold weather.”

   “Estonian singers have an openness about their voices, which tends to carry vast amounts of power.  Perhaps this comes from the harsh winters and training under extreme circumstances.  Singing in the middle of RAM is like standing with a wall of sound all around you and inside you.  Everything shakes.”

   CSO music director Paavo Järvi will conduct Sibelius’ “Kullervo” with the Estonian National Male Choir and soloists Charlotte Hellekant and Jaako Kortekangas at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Music Hall.  Also on the program is Beethoven’s “Leonore”  Overture No. 3.  For tickets:  (513) 381-3300 or www.cincinnatisymphony.org.