REVIEW: Cantus sings music of peaceful revolution

By William Randall Beard – Star Tribune (Minneapolis) – March 16, 2012

Choral concerts remember music of the Baltic states in their 1989 fight for freedom.

In 1989, citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sang their way out of the Soviet Union. The peaceful revolution that led to the Baltic States’ liberation from communism was supported and reinforced by a centuries-long musical tradition. In concerts titled “The Singing Revolution,” the male vocal ensemble Cantus celebrates this world-changing music.

During the show, that history was authenticated through video interviews with Baltic natives now living in Minnesota. They emphasized the prevalence of music in Baltic culture: People joined choirs rather than sports teams, and gatherings always included singing. Music unified them during the decades of occupation.

The program featured a fair amount of folk music. And there were many paeans to nature set with hymn-like reverence. Even the contemporary selections reflected, and reflected on, the ancient traditions.

The videos, with horror stories of Soviet oppression, comprised a history lesson. Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’ “Teomehe-laul” (“Serf’s Song)” created an allegorical embodiment. He was the most-performed composer, but the other two states were well represented as well.

Cantus enhanced the music with their arrangements. In the strophic songs, they created a musical variety without being gimmicky and being sensitive to the text of each verse. They used the arrangements to add theatricality, utilizing dynamics, complex harmonies, even shouting and stomping to create drama.

As songs united the crowds, they expressed the passion of the protesters. And Cantus’ performance captured that passion. They always sing with commitment, but brought an extra degree to this music.

At the height of the protests, thousands linked hands and formed an international chain from the capitals of Estonia and Latvia. A song, “Atmostas Baltija (The Baltics Are Waking Up),” written for the event, was sung in all three of the Baltic languages. It is no small compliment to say that the Cantus performance embodied the spirit of that amazing event.

Artists often talk about the power of art to change lives. This music was art that changed nations. Cantus performed it with seriousness — and joy. Much hope is to be found in it.