Chicago Sinfonietta

at Rosary College, November 12

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra

at K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Temple, November 4

It sometimes seems that the big-time popular classical-music universe can support an almost unlimited number of professional piano and violin soloists. And it will harbor a somewhat smaller quantity of cellists and sopranos. But then the support dwindles rapidly. With flutes it’s pretty much Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway, and with other instruments, such as the clarinet or harp, there’s usually room for only one. For instance, it seems that the only recorder player with enough clout to make widely available recordings is Michala Petri.

Through diligence, perseverance, and talent the occasional novelty act can also get a hearing. Sometimes these performers rely on earlier music composed for the instrument; sometimes they depend on transcriptions. For example, the glass harmonica, popular during the 18th and early 19th centuries, was revived by German player Bruno Hoffmann, who was quite the fashion in the early 1970s. He was even tapped to make a recording of Lucia di Lammermoor, playing his ghostly sounding instrument in the mad scene in place of the more familiar flute. But the glass harmonica is unwieldy, fragile, and of limited musical usefulness–even if Mozart did write for it–and flautists have long since reclaimed their turf.

Has the moment arrived for a new novelty act, the steelpan? The steelpan (which the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines as a “tuned idiophone usually made from an oil drum”) might seem an even less likely solo instrument in a symphonic setting than a cupboard full of goblets with water in them. Steelpans, developed in the West Indies about 60 years ago, are made by cutting oil drums down to size, then banging on their tops so that they curve in, pounding in the various note locations, tempering the steel, and fine-tuning; it must be one of the only instruments extant whose tone adjustments are made with a ball-peen hammer. Most steelpans have a range of no more than two octaves, and the higher the note is, the harder it is to sound: pitch is determined by the size of a spot on the instrument’s surface, and the spots for the high notes are apt to be very small and not very resounding.

Steelpans give calypso music much of its distinctive sound, but are seldom heard outside that genre. That changed last weekend with the Chicago Sinfonietta’s performance of Jan Bach’s Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra, written for steelpanist Liam Teague. Teague, a native of Trinidad, has taken this inherently limited instrument about as far as it can go. But he takes it there in impressive fashion, with flying mallets and natural flair, for an astounding total effect.

Bach, who’s on the faculty at Northern Illinois University, where Teague is a student, wrote three versions of the piece: for steelpan and piano, steelpan ensemble, and full orchestra; it’s also possible to do the last version with an extra battery of accompanying steelpans (the version heard at Orchestra Hall on Monday night). The concerto is full of humor, starting with the titles of the movements, “Reflections” and “Toccata”: in his notes Bach explains that “in some countries, ‘reflection’ is a synonym for pealing, the action of striking a bell. The second movement, ‘Toccata’ (touch piece)…is not only an opportunity for the soloist to display [his virtuosity]; it is also a connection with that Baroque past with which the name of the composer–despite all efforts to the contrary–is eternally associated.”

The first movement is as lyrical as its title might indicate–it’s pleasant and eminently enjoyable. But in the second movement things really perk up and get interesting. The instrument played by Teague has a bright, appealing sound that cuts through all the instrumental competition onstage. The music is appropriately calypso- and jazz-flavored, but Bach manages to let any number of other influences and traditions peek in. The most enjoyable (and funniest)–punctuated by the delighted laughter of a small child in the auditorium–was an echo section for steelpan and flexatone, a percussion instrument that sounds like a musical saw that went to finishing school, with a distinctive twang and a surprising amount of tonal flexibility; it was part of an impressively enhanced percussion section.

Liam Teague can make the humble steelpan sing. If he’s as fortunate in any future commissions as he was with Jan Bach, he might well carve out a niche for himself and his instrument. If there’s room for countertenors, there certainly should be for steelpan.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to a pair of contemporary compositions and one warhorse. The overture to Theatre Set by Ulysses Kay was noisy but jaunty and innocuous. Henryk Gorecki, who seems to be everywhere these days, was represented by a purely instrumental composition, his Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, op. 40, a brief piece that’s more overtly minimalist in its roots and orientation than some of his other music, particularly his vocal works. Quick and sprightly, it says little, but it says that perkily, as if the composer had been well caffeinated when he wrote it.

Conductor Paul Freeman could have used a double espresso before the second half of the program, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 2 in C Minor, the Little Russian. Content to follow his soloists in the first portion, Freeman allowed this piece to drag. The playing was perfectly competent, but the tempi were stultifying.

The last few years have seen a movement in contemporary music back toward tonality. Curiously, much of this music is coming from the former captive nations of the Soviet bloc, and it celebrates distinctly un-Soviet values, looking more to the West than to the erstwhile oppressor nation to the east.

Like Gorecki, who had a crossover hit with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Estonian composer Arvo Part writes in a style that could be termed mystical minimalism. It’s austerely fascinating music that draws on the religious roots and individual human values so long repressed by the Soviet state. Deceptively simple in its structure, Part’s music utilizes strings and an ethereal choir of mixed voices to transport the listener in quasi-hypnotic fashion. Unlike Gorecki’s works, its effect is not strictly cumulative; it’s rather like Gorecki with a point to make. Both men’s works offer a mix of Slavic and Roman Catholic liturgical harmonies, but both also utilize the still-universal language of Latin, which helps pull down the barriers against understanding: the words of the Magnificat or the Te Deum are familiar to many people.

This music has an easy-listening aspect–it just rolls over you. Some people may think of it as a higher-class version of New Age music, but there’s something deeper in it–a genuine religious faith that survived the gulag and emerged stronger for the experience. Educated Westerners are seldom comfortable with a stalwart Christianity; we equate overt expressions of religious feeling with fundies shrieking about Jay-zuss. In eastern Europe Christianity took on an element of nationalism and was a means of resistance as well as a prop in times of trouble. There belief is not yet an embarrassment.

Part’s amalgam of Western minimalism and Eastern mysticism is being championed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste (the same forces that recorded this music for BMG), all currently on tour in the U.S. At their concert at K.A.M.

Isaiah Israel Temple they sang their countryman’s music with pride, feeling, and splendid intonation.

One can usually tell when a chorus has been working together for a while; the singers stagger their breaths in long phrases without consciously thinking about it. The 24 Estonians fall into this category–their blend was flawless. Their sound was otherworldly, with a purity and clarity of tone not often heard, and they held the pitch well in their many a cappella selections; the three black-toned basses were particularly effective. That they’ve been singing this particular music together for years was evident from the comfortable way they inhabited it, seemingly without any diminution of interest in it. When performing the same pieces over and over it’s easy to forget the excitement and interest one had when they were first encountered, but the Estonians have somehow kept their work on this music evergreen. It would be useful to know how they do it.

The rather underworked orchestra–it had two compositions to play alone and accompanied the chorus on the Te Deum–did a fine job. Conductor Kaljuste used no baton, but employed his hands gracefully, and sometimes quite forcefully, to get the sound he wanted.

The second half of the program consisted of three pieces by Part–the Magnificat, the orchestral Silouans Song, and the Te deum–and the first half was a mix, with a respectable rendering of Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied” followed by Part’s instrumental “Collage B-A-C-H,” an amusing but ultimately unimpressive takeoff on Bach motifs. There were also three choral works by three other composers, the first Finnish, the other two Estonian: Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Canticum Mariae Virginis, Cyrillus Kreek’s “Blessed Is the Man,” and Veljo Tormis’s “Saint John’s Day Song.” All are cut from the same cloth as Part’s music, with Kreek (1889-1962) the apparent pioneer in using folk and religious music as a pattern. The Tormis work, which occasionally resorted to harmonics one step short of movie music, was the least impressive. Together these compositions made the concert a bit too much of the same thing.