Conductor Janne Fridolin Reflects On Vox Populi's Concert Tour in Japan

26 Jan 2024

Vox Populi jaapanis Fridolin

Please describe the preparation process of the concert performance "Awakening of Birds." How many people were included in the production team?

Since 2010, the mixed choir Vox Populi, in collaboration with directors Anne Türnpu and Eva Koldits, has celebrated the anniversaries of Veljo Tormis with a concert performance. In 2015, for Tormis's 85th birthday, we took the concert production "Meditations with Tormis" to the United States and ended up eating a cake which was made in honor of Veljo Tormis by Estonians abroad. When the 90th birthday was approaching, we collaborated once again with directors Anne Türnpu and Eva Koldits. As we are all concerned about the fate of Finno-Ugric people, we integrated the rituals of Finno-Ugric people, Tormis' "Finno-Ugric Landscapes" and "Forgotten Peoples" into the play.

We initially wanted to stage the performance at Tormis's birthplace Kõrveaia. Upon visiting the place in wintertime and seeing the cut down forest just beyond the fence, it symbolized to us as the disappearance of Finno-Ugric people in Russian territories. So we decided to perform the play there instead, on a clearcut area at in the very first hours of morning, at sunrise.

The production team was as small as possible and as big as necessary. The choir included over 40 singers, who were taught by Rasmus Kaljujärv in stage movement and presence. The area of the performance itself was over 300 meters long. Lauri Kaldoja managed the sound effects, Airi Eras designed the lighting, and Kairi Mändla served as the production artist. The posters were designed by Martin Pedanik. The whole project was led by Mirle Kabel. Technicians and many helping hands joined in to work with lights or sound, also by assembling the audience platforms, and volunteers even organized the parking onsite. The team also included the directors and a conductor.

The songs selected for "Awakening of Birds" required singers not just to have great vocal skills but also strong teamwork knowledge and convincing acting skills. Also the program of about an hour is performed by heart, without any sheet music onstage. How cooperative were the singers and how much does trust in the conductor matter in such a project?

In my opinion, the willingness to participate in such projects has always been high. It always leads to cooperation with different people, and that's why it's exciting. It is true that the tension is greater compared to a regular concert because the songs must be memorized and at the same time there is an additional narrative that must be played out well. This time, 19 songs in 14 different languages were performed. Our singers are very clever, they made some quick “cheatsheets” which helped them to memorize both lyrics and movements before going onstage. These could even find their way to an exhibition someday!

I believe that thanks to the productions done since 2010, Vox Populi is a great choir of one breath. In addition, all these productions have received a lot of positive feedback, which is very important for all of us. At this point, we must be thankful for having Anne Türnpu and Eva Koldits on our team.

There must be trust, and not only in terms of the conductor and directors, but also trust between the singers themselves. Otherwise, everything seen on stage would end up being unnatural.

Is it necessary to explain the works of Tormis to today´s youth, or are the topics in the songs rather timeless?

Tallinn Rahumäe Primary School invited us to perform "Awakening of Birds" for 7th-9th graders. After getting feedback it turned out that some aspects were perceptible, but as we provided some explanations, the whole performance led to deeper and more meaningful understanding for them. It is indeed necessary to talk about our kindred people, to reveal their historical story in modern aspects and context.

What were the challenges and successes for you as a conductor in such a wide-range project?

The challenge is usually the same – how to motivate the singers. I achieve this mostly through choosing impactful lyrics and understanding the lyrics is one of the fundamental ways to inspire singers to learn and memorize them.

Success is experienced both in rehearsals and during significant cathartic moments that still occur during performances. At the final performance of "Awakening of Birds" by the clear-cut area, we, along with the singers, shed some tears during many songs. We were completely immersed in the storyline and fully aware that it was the last performance, so we got emotional. Success can also be found in tiny things, such as a few kind words or a feeling of gratitude in a glance, making the conductor happy and the whole process can be considered successful already.

Tormis's music is based on folklore, nature, and indigenous songs, with broader cultural, historical, and emotional dimensions are added. Does Japan have its own identifying commonality in these aspects to relate to?

Indeed, after the performances, it became clear that a commonality existed. Nature holds great importance in the lives of the Japanese. Although we've seen well-kept beautiful Japanese gardens, but in fact, folklore in Japan also features birds and forests prominently. When we visited the indigenous Ainu people, it turned out that the cult of a bear is an important part of their culture- similarly to the Khanty people (even today). Their dances are ritual, and patterns resembled those of the Sami people have. It was something truly indescribable – flying so far but feeling like among relatives. It most likely was that way.

How successfully did you manage to convey the essence of these songs in a completely foreign language to Japanese? How did this concert-performance format resonate with the audience? What was the reception and feedback from the Japanese audience there?

The planning for the Japan concert tour began in 2019, four years before it actually took place due to the pandemic. During this time, we had video meetings with all hosts, including choirs, introducing them to the concert production held at Kõrveaia. We sang songs, discussed the production in detail, and after the meeting, we continued communication through written correspondence. Just before the trip, we sent English translations of the songs and the necessary information for the concert production.

They created Japanese-language programs for each concert, translating both the songs and the content of the production. This made it easier for the audience to understand this genre of concert production. Feedback after each performance was overwhelmingly positive. It seemed like they didn't expect something like this. Given that choir concert production like ours, as a genre, is essentially unknown outside of Estonia, it's not surprising. When it comes to feedback, without a doubt the most sublime were the words of an emeritus professor and conductor who said that he felt something very familiar and mentioned that we managed to break through the wall of their Gods. The Estonian ambassador Mait Martinson also highly praised what he saw and said that we have broken down the cultural barriers, implying that communication between Japanese and Estonian musicians will be even easier in the future.

Was there a cultural exchange aspect during the trip in the longer term? Do you see the potential for a closer collaboration between Vox Populi and Japan?

A couple of Japanese choirs are planning to visit Estonia for the Song Festival in 2025. We eagerly await them and are ready for further collaboration. Hopefully, we can give a joint concert with a Japanese choir before the Song Festival.

Looking back now and reflecting on the impressions of the concert tour – did any unexpected moments occur, or were there any exceptionally memorable moments you would like to highlight?

Japan is an extraordinary country, and due to our tight concert schedule, much remained undiscovered. However, meeting the Ainu people, participating in their rituals, and realizing that their traditions resemble to Finno-Ugric peoples was indeed a memorable moment. Integrating Japanese choir singers into two performances will also be remembered for a long time. We organized a workshop with directors and singers from Vox Populi, where Japanese choir singers experienced the synergy of the production and delved deeper into folklore texts. Initially very cautious, the Japanese became increasingly involved, and the final part of our performance included two different Japanese choirs: Raw-Ore from Sendai and Kanto Daiichi High School Chorus Club from Tokyo. Their gratitude was beyond words.

Comparing performances (outdoor area vs. indoor halls in various locations and sizes) – where did this piece resonate most effectively? How crucial is the concert venue, costumes, acoustics, and lighting in choral music?

Outdoor and indoor venues are two very different concert spaces, with outdoor lighting and acoustics changing extremely rapidly. For instance, a forest doesn't echo very well in the middle of the day, but early morning and late evening provide completely different natural acoustics where everything echoes. At Kõrveaia, we started with the performances at 5 am in early August, arriving at 4:30 am when the first birds started to wake up. As the performance progressed and the sun rose, the birds joined in. Therefore, no outdoor performance is the same, each having unique acoustics and lighting. We have even performed in the rain, like a heavy curtain, which hardly lets anything through.

Indoor spaces are more reliable but less exciting for such a production, and different details become important in indoor spaces. For our indoor plays, the video from the Kõrveaia performances played a significant role, providing another dimension to the indoor setting. The larger the video screen, the more impressive the entire performance was.

It's challenging to say where this piece resonated most effectively, as every performance, regardless of the venue, received a lot of positive feedback. We've heard how the performance lifted the audience to the ceiling, with admiration for the choir's sound, unity, and the entire production has caused astonishment in a good way.

Reflecting on performances at Kõrveaia/Viimsi Artium/Upopoi/Sendai/Tokyo/Tallinn Drama Theatre over several years – has "Awakening of Birds" changed during these years?

The Finno-Ugric mystery "Awakening of Birds" is a journey into the traditions, rituals, and spells of various Finno-Ugric peoples. Their old folk songs tell us about the creation of the world, the anticipation of ancestral spirits, the struggles of marriage, traversing the cycle of life, and the living with each cycle of a year.

The narrative of the play has remained the same; it hasn't changed. What has changed is the time, place, and people. Fortunately, we haven't grown tired of it yet, and this material remains timeless.

What was the feedback from Vox Populi singers themselves after the trip? What inspired them, what surprised them, and what brought joy?

The similarity of the Ainu people's surrounding nature on Hokkaido Island to Estonia's nature surprised and inspired the singers. Additionally, the Ainu were moved by our passionate performance, where, among other things, we impersonated bird voices, highlighting an unexpected commonality in creativity. The Ainu representative emphasized that despite not understanding the language of our songs, he felt the power of our performance. Great joy and connection were felt by the choir members by teaching the locals to play our Estonian small musical instrument “parmupill”. This experience reaffirmed the importance of preserving, representing, and valuing our folk traditions and our kindred peoples.

Interviewed by Eva Karo (Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre)

Photo: Siim Sander Saar