Veljo Tormis' Songfest at the Estonian House in New York

23 Apr 2024

Celia Roose

On April 6, Veljo Tormis' songfest was held in the Estonian House New York as part of the Estonian Cultural Days with approximately 75 individuals in attendance at the regilaul workshop. The large choir was conducted by music teacher and singer Celia Roose from Võru county, recognized as the heir to the mantle of composer Veljo Tormis. Three singing groups were formed, a male choir sang in the middle, sopranos on the right, and altos on the left. The program included songs from the cycle "Thirteen Estonian Lyrical Folk Songs" (1972): "Looking for Singers", "A Serf's Wages", "Cursing the Squires", "The Rowan Tree", and "Ingerian Evenings" (1979).

Following the singing session, participants expressed their emotions. Liisa (17) from Connecticut, shared that it was her first experience with Veljo Tormis's compositions. Despite being unfamiliar with Tormis's music before the event, her enthusiasm was infectious. Liisa remarked, "I particularly enjoyed the song The Rowan Tree (“Pihlapuu”). It was incredibly beautiful, and I admired the lyrics."
Liisa's sister Heli (14) also expressed her thoughts. Their dialogue emphasized their passion for music and how they have supported and motivated each other through musical journeys. Liisa and Heli discussed their engagement with the Estonian language, showcasing their deep connection to their cultural heritage and dedication to upholding their roots despite being far from home. Both had attended Estonian language classes at the Estonian House in New York and were fluent speakers.
They also shared their experiences of performing at the Estonian Song Festival under the guidance of choir conductor Maaja Roos, emphasizing the emotional significance of such events and how music has the power to unite and inspire people.

Celia Roose asked the singers if today’s singing seemed easy or caused little anxiety. The response indicated that it wasn't challenging, rather, it was enjoyable and fulfilling to witness the performance of different vocal groups.
Tuuli, who traveled from Finland to New York for the Estonian Cultural Days, shared an intriguing exchange with Celia Roose. "The moment I saw you, I felt this incredible warmth and sense of security emanating from you. It's truly remarkable! So, I'm curious, how did you first find your way into music?"

Celia Roose responded, "Well, there was this famous accordion player in Estonia, Karl Kikas. He lived in my village and often performed at our local gatherings. One day, my mother thought she saw Kikas playing his instrument in our garden—only to realize it was me! I had taken Kikka-Karla's accordion and was playing with it. I don't remember this myself but after that incident, my mother enrolled me in a music school, and I had already begun learning the accordion at home. I still recall the teacher's somewhat doubtful facial expression when she first heard me play, but in my mind, I already knew how to play. Nevertheless, the teacher had to start from scratch with me."
If we delve deeper into my past, there was a particularly challenging moment. In eighth grade, I completed elementary school and also attended a gymnasium. My athletics coach proposed sending me to a sports school in Tallinn to focus on shot put and discus throwing. He reached out to my mother, hoping to convince her. One day, I was summoned out of class to answer the phone, and my mother simply uttered this sentence: "Music will be your lifelong journey, while sports are only temporary!" That single statement determined my decision. Even before I started school, I was already deeply immersed in music, composing my own pieces and meticulously notating them in a notebook to preserve the melodies. The following day, I proudly presented my musical composition. Sadly, I no longer possess that notebook, leaving it a mystery as to which musical notations a six-year-old me crafted.”

Celia approached her acquaintance Mihkel Jaanus, inquiring whether singing the small motifs created by Tormis, such as "Piu-pau, peoperemees, peremehikene?" was enjoyable. Mihkel Jaanus, hailing from Toronto, Canada, participated in a choir in his childhood, singing in English, French, and Estonian, said: "Today's event was truly fantastic, deeply meaningful!"
Tuuli felt pleased with her performance. "I thoroughly enjoyed it. This experience will stay with me for a long time."

A student at the Estonian Academy of Arts, Marta from Ida-Viru County in Estonia, whose native language is Russian, is currently interning with ceramist Anna Pärtna in North Carolina through the Erasmus program. "It was an incredibly positive experience. Singing in a choir and harmonizing with others is physically invigorating. It's like releasing your inner voice. Initially, I was a bit tense, but when we sang The Rowan Tree (“Pihlapuu”), I felt very at ease and liberated. The sense of connection with others is truly uplifting." Marta also recognized the evident segregation in Estonia and emphasized her deep interest in Estonian culture, choir singing, and involvement in the Estonian Song Festival. Nonetheless, she underscored the difficulty of finding a choir in Estonia, particularly if Estonian is not your native language.

Ethan, an alumnus of the New York Juilliard School, said, "It was truly a beautiful and moving experience. As a musician, composer, and choir singer myself, I was pleasantly surprised by how I grasped these songs despite them being in Estonian! Celia Roose did an excellent job conveying instructions, ensuring everyone sounded their best. At times, the Estonian speakers helped translate Celia's instructions for me, but many musical terms are universal, so I understood what to do based on my musical knowledge."
He continued, "While I am generally familiar with 20th-century music and had heard of Veljo Tormis before through the Estonian composer Joonas Tarm, I hadn't specifically listened to Tormis's music or knew much about him. Learning more about him at today's event was enlightening. It appears that he holds a similar significance to Estonians as Béla Bartók does to Hungarians. It's fascinating to hear how he traveled around collecting traditional songs and incorporated them into his work. Now that I know there's a Veljo Tormis archive (Veljo Tormis Virtual Center), I'm eager to explore it."

Tamara from Mexico City expressed: "Even though I'm neither a musician nor a singer, and I don't speak Estonian, I felt fully engaged in the event. I found the choirmaster-conductor Celia Roose to be very captivating. She managed to teach us songs without speaking English, which was remarkable. Reading the text was challenging, so I had to rely on listening to others around me for pronunciation cues." Tamara further noted that singing helps to improve language skills, emphasizing the efficacy of learning a language through music. "Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and the songs were incredible. Veljo Tormis was truly an amazing composer!"

Interview conducted by Iti Teder (Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre).

Photo: Nele Hendrikson