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Eastern Bloc Party

Estonia's got the world's ear for art music these days. Prepare the iPod.



The music that's born in small places can resonate far and wide. Isolated communities in New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia spawned jazz, blues and country music, transforming popular song worldwide.

Something like that has been going in classical music, too. In the mid-20th century, two of Europe's smaller nations, Hungary and Finland, produced an inordinate share of influential composers and performers. Now an even smaller country takes its turn: Estonia. Half the size of West Virginia, less populous than greater Milwaukee, this ministate on the Baltic seacoast has become a locus of modern art music. Estonian-born Arvo PArt is one of the world's leading living composers. The JArvi clan — father Neeme, sons Paavo and Kristjan — are the reigning family dynasty of orchestra conductors. And there are surprisingly many more where they came from.
“Estonia has a very old singing tradition, going back to the ancient Runic songs, and our country has a great choral culture,” says TA├Žnu Kaljuste, whose Estonian Philharmonic Choir performs on Monday, Nov. 3, beginning a weeklong focus on contemporary Estonian music at the University of Richmond.

“Culture has been our weapon, because we did not have guns,” Kaljuste says. A national song festival, established in 1869, effectively launched modern Estonia's bid for independence from Russia, achieved briefly between the world wars and regained when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Despite Russian domination, Estonians “have always identified themselves with Nordic and Western European culture,” says Ben Broening, the UR music professor whose Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival will explore Estonian composition Nov. 7 and 8. “This is not an insular culture, and its musicians are constantly taking in, adapting and innovating on music from outside their boundaries.

“Small as it is, Estonia has a really rich compositional scene,” Broening says. “Its composers work in a wide range of styles, all kinds of harmonic vocabularies. … but they all place a strong emphasis on color, sonority — sound itself.”

Works by PArt, whom Broening calls “the symbol of Estonian music to the rest of the world,” will be heard alongside a piece by Toivo Tulev, another of the country's pioneering modern composers, in Monday's concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. A new work by Tulev will be introduced by eighth blackbird in the Third Practice festival finale, Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. S
The University of Richmond's Modlin Center presents the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $36. UR's Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival features five free concerts by eighth blackbird and other performers and sound artists on Nov. 7-8. Call 289-8980 or visit For the Third Practice schedule, visit
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at


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