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Tõnu Kaljuste - Expanded CV

Tõnu Kaljuste - A Biographical Portrait

From Ellerhein to Heino Eller (April, 2001)

Tõnu Kaljuste was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1953 and is the son of Heino Kaljuste (1925-1989) who was a prominent Estonian choral conductor and musical teacher.

Tõnu Kaljuste has described his father as his first musical influence and inspiration and it was as a member of his father’s Ellerhein children’s choir that he began his musical performance experience. Heino Kaljuste formed the Ellerhein (the Estonian name for the bird’s-eye primrose wildflower) choir in 1951. In 1966, Heino Kaljuste added the amateur Ellerhein Chamber Choir to his conducting responsibilities by gathering previous members of the children’s choir who wished to continue in choral singing.

Alongside his choral performance activities, the young student Tõnu Kaljuste began his academic musical education with piano studies at the Tallinn Secondary Music School which he completed in 1971 after specializing in choral conducting under the teacher Harri Ilja. From there, he continued his conducting studies at the Tallinn Conservatory with Jüri Variste (choral) and Roman Matsov (orchestral) and completed his graduate degree in 1976. Tõnu Kaljuste did his postgraduate work from 1976 to 1978 at the Leningrad Conservatory with Professor J. Kudrjavtseva.

The beginning of each decade has brought new challenges in Tõnu Kaljuste’s ever evolving musical life, from those early studies in 1971, to embarking upon a full-time professional career in 1981, the expanded international possibilities that came with Estonia’s renewed independence in 1991, and the birth of a new freelance conducting career on the dawn of a new millennium in 2001.

Tõnu Kaljuste began conducting the Ellerhein Chamber Choir in 1971 and assumed full leadership of it in 1974 after teaching responsibilities demanded more of his father’s time. Even from those early days, the choir’s repertoire and performance practice was very wide-ranging and experimental. Musical evenings and presentations were made that consisted of combining texts, choral songs, theatrical and dance movement. Composers ranged from a classical repertoire of Palestrina, Lasso, Victoria, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven through to more contemporary works by Debussy, Ravel, Delius, Britten and Messiaen. Thematic evenings were constructed around styles such as gospel spirituals, French chansons and folk songs. At the same time, Kaljuste and the choir began their lifetime advocacy of the works of Estonian composers with the finno-ugric folk song inspired works of Veljo Tormis most prominent among them.

During the years from 1978 to 1980, Tõnu Kaljuste’s academic career also came full circle as he himself was the professor of choral conducting at his Tallinn Conservatory alma mater. The Ellerhein Chamber Choir achieved the distinction of winning the 1st Prize at the 9th Béla Bartók International Choral Competition in Debrecen, Hungary in 1980 with Tõnu Kaljuste receiving the best conductor prize as well. He describes the qualities that he especially seeks in his choir members: "I look for two things, which are the beauty of the voice and the singer’s ability to be flexible and free in their techniques. I want them to be able to adapt their technique and thinking from such extremes as baroque to romantic, as our choir’s repertoire is very wide ranging. I believe that there are two types of singers: those whose voices are their own instrument and know how to play them, or those whose voices are an instrument but need someone else to play them. I prefer the first type of singer."

With the government funding that came with the success at the Bartók Competition, Tõnu Kaljuste was able to make the Ellerhein Chamber Choir a full-time professional choir and formalized their new name as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) in 1981. During those years of Soviet Communist occupation, all Estonian professional musicians were classified as government employees and were paid through the Estonian Soviet State Republic Philharmonic Society. The Philharmonic tag has remained with the choir all these years, but Estonian choral enthusiasts have affectionately taken to using the shorthanded nickname of, simply, "Kaljuste’s Choir". The choir progressed throughout the 1980’s and began to achieve a greater degree of international renown with the infrequent concert tours allowed by Soviet authorities and the limited pressings of vinyl LPs released by the government sponsored Melodiya label.

Tõnu Kaljuste has said about his work with the EPCC that "we grew together with and through our repertoire and from working in close association with many composers. It has been very important to our work that we have been able to cooperate with living composers."

In addition to his work with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste was also a conductor at the Estonian National Opera during the period 1978 to 1985. During this time, the works conducted included Britten´s Let´s Make an Opera - The Little Sweep, Mozart´s Bastien und Bastienne and Der Schauspieldirektor, Veljo Tormis´ opera-ballet Estonian Ballads and Weber´s Der Freischütz.

With the arrival of renewed Estonian independence in 1991, Tõnu Kaljuste and the EPCC were able to embark on a more fully realized international professional career than the previous state controlled monopoly would permit. ECM Records had already established a major Estonian association through its advocacy of Arvo Pärt’s music with the ECM releases of Tabula Rasa, Arbos, Passio, Miserere and Trivium. ECM Records produced its first recording with Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with Forgotten Peoples (ECM 1459/60) by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The six sections of the Forgotten Peoples cycle (composed from 1970 to 1989) use extant folksongs from some of the smaller finno-ugric languages such as Livonian, Votic, Izhorian, Ingrian, Vepsian and Karelian as the basis for Tormis’ compositions. Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian represent the larger branches of the finno-ugric language group. As Veljo Tormis has said: "It is not my goal to improve upon folk song, but instead to capture the essence of its being." Tõnu Kaljuste commented further about the Forgotten Peoples cycle that "many small finno-ugric language groups were becoming extinct during the Soviet Russification period and this was of great concern to Veljo Tormis, who wanted to preserve their culture in some manner. To survive next door to a large nation it is not enough to just have an army to defend your border but a cultural underpinning must exist as well."

Tõnu Kaljuste continued to expand the repertoire of the EPCC by adding the works of Arvo Pärt, which had even been banned from performance after that composer’s emigration from Soviet Estonia to at first Austria and later to Germany in 1980. The need for a stable instrumental ensemble also became evident and resulted in Kaljuste establishing the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in 1993. Together, the choir and orchestra released Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum (ECM 1505) in 1993 as well. Collaborations with Arvo Pärt continued throughout the 1990’s with the recording of Litany (ECM 1592) in 1995 and the magnum opus of the composer’s tintinnabuli style, the Kanon Pokajanen (ECM 1654/55) in 1997. Kanon Pokajanen (Church Slavonic for Canon of Repentance) required two years of composition by Pärt and trial rehearsals with Kaljuste and his choir. Arvo Pärt described the collaboration by saying: "We were together collectively in the work and, in fact, during rehearsals we were dealing with something more than just music. These musicians have a very sharpened sense of style and feeling. Their conductor has taken them into the presence of the music, the sounds and the phrases. Every nuance is searched for and worked on to the utmost extent. The result is that Kaljuste’s choir and orchestra are in demand throughout the world." In recognition of this collaboration, Arvo Pärt dedicated Kanon Pokajanen to Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

The next generation of Estonian composers was represented by ECM’s release of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Crystallisatio (ECM 1590) in 1996. Again the forces of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir combined with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra for this selection of works by Estonia’s best-known younger composer who was born in 1959.

Tõnu Kaljuste also became principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Choir from 1994 to 2000 and of the Netherlands Chamber Choir from 1998 to 2000. The former post was especially personally significant, as it allowed him to work directly with the choir made famous by its association with the choral maestro Eric Ericson whom Kaljuste has acknowledged as a major influence. The work with the Swedish Radio Choir produced the ECM release of Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance (ECM 1583) in 1999. To round out the decade, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s next release was a return to their "earthly" roots with Veljo Tormis’ Litany To Thunder (ECM 1687). Tõnu Kaljuste has sometimes described the range of the EPCC’s repertoire as extending from the earth of Veljo Tormis to the heavens of Arvo Pärt. In June of 1998, the ongoing association with ECM Records was celebrated by an ECM Days Festival in Tallinn, Estonia. Organized by Tõnu Kaljuste, the guest performers included a wide representation of ECM associated musicians such as Kim Kashkashian, Paul Giger, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and the Swedish Radio Choir. A recording of the EPCC’s concert at that festival with Swiss violinist Paul Giger subsequently comprised part of the album Ignis (ECM 1681).

Tõnu Kaljuste’s newest recording is of Heino Eller’s Neenia (ECM 1745). It also marks the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra’s first purely orchestral release and adds an earlier generation to ECM’s ever expanding list of Estonian composers (one would be forgiven at this point for thinking that ECM was an acronym for Estonian Contemporary Music). It is also worthy of note that Heino Eller (1887-1970) was Arvo Pärt’s composition professor as he was for many other contemporary Estonian composers during his teaching years at the Tartu Secondary Music School (1920-1940) and the Tallinn Conservatory (1940-1970).

The year 2001 will see the celebration of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s 20th season as a professional choral ensemble. Tõnu Kaljuste has also chosen to make the end of this season the beginning of a career as an independent freelance conductor. The start of each of the past three decades has seen a major change or shift in the direction of his musical path. This is the next stage as he seeks more and more ways to "enter into the presence of the music".

In 1998, Tõnu Kaljuste was presented with the Japanese ABC Music Award and received the Robert Edler Prize for Choral Music. Tõnu Kaljuste is also a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.

New productions with Tõnu Kaljuste as conductor are in preparation on ECM New Series. These include recordings of music of Arvo Pärt and Krzysztof Penderecki with, respectively, the Swedish Radio Symphony and Choir and the Netherlands Chamber Choir.

Alan Teder