Conversation with Liisi Toomsalu, Conductor of the Sakala Men's Choir

21 Jan 2024

Sakala meeskoor

Estonian Men's Singing Landscape in 2024
The current state of male singing in Estonia raises concerns as we observe the quantity and structure of male choirs nationwide. While there is a notable presence of boys' choirs, the progression of men's choirs is lagging. This issue is exacerbated by the absence of an intermediate stage, and the recent high school reform fails to foster continuity within choir participation. To address this challenge, it is essential to engage with the circle of teenage boys and strategize on how to promote and enhance male choir involvement.

As of today, we are fortunate to boast a total of 44 choir members. Recently, we experienced a delightful miracle as three young choir singers joined us simultaneously—an unprecedented occurrence in my 15 years with this men's choir.

This positive outcome is a culmination of years of groundwork, meticulous planning for concert locations, strategic promotion of choral singing, and engaging performances at schools. Collaborations with dancers and boys' choirs have also proven beneficial, as they provided pathways for fellow students or fathers in the audience to discover the joy of choir singing. Our vision of establishing a youth vocal ensemble at Viljandi Vocational Education Center has begun to materialize. Although in its early stages, and with me having joined less than a year ago, all participants have already become members of either our male or mixed choir. Anticipating further growth, especially considering the abundance of young men in our community!

While not everyone may be ready to tackle Gustav Ernesaks' piece "Mu isamaa on minu arm" at a choir level without prior preparation, every Estonian can undoubtedly handle the song "Sepapoisid"!

About Tormis' “Men's Songs” Cycle
As a choral conducting instructor at the University of Tartu's Academy of Culture, I mentored three graduating students last year. Together, we conceived the idea of tackling Veljo Tormis' "Men's Songs" cycle, and we distributed the various parts among the students. The exam concert last spring featured Artur Müür conducting "Men's Song" and "Sailor's Song," Sinne Saar leading "Bawdry Song," and Margit Kolk directing "Serf's Song."

Uno Käär, one of our most dynamic male choir members, orchestrated performances with this program at both the Tallinn Botanical Garden and the Raeküla Old School Center in Pärnu. Tormis' compositions resonate well with our singers, and the content and overall mood are readily comprehensible without detailed explanations from the conductor. The "Men's Songs" cycle aligns with the Sakala male choir's penchant for humor and playfulness. We've slightly adapted the songs for the choir, incorporating emotions, costumes, and movements into our performances. As Veljogi aptly pointed out, folk music doesn't always require a serious and pristine rendition!

To enhance our concerts, the most engaged members of the Sakala Male Choir have delved into books about Veljo Tormis and Olev Oja. We've integrated fascinating facts and comments related to the songs into the concert's intertexts.

Folk dance
We performed this program for the first time in Viljandi with the folk dance group Vabajalg, now the next concerts have been with the Ru Le Me dancers. The dance and song concert as a whole brings more audience to the halls and is more varied for the listener. We divided the program in such a way that the singers had the opportunity to rest their voices, as well as to have a few minutes to change costumes. We do the last song of the concert together with the dancers, it's like the finale of the program.

We will be happy to perform with this program in 2024 in places we haven't been to yet, and spring and summer will bring the Sakala Male Choir quite a few different performances all over Estonia.

Interview conducted by Eva Karo (Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre)