Monday, June 23, 2014

To Breathe as One: Singing Freely in Estonia

Every five years, Estonia mounts a massive chorale festival called Laulupidu. Do not expect to hear “The Internationale” on the program anytime soon. Traditionally more than a concert, Laulipidu provided a venue for several extraordinary spontaneous acts of defiance during the Soviet years. Today, it continues as a symbol of Estonian freedom and a celebration of its culture. It is a big deal for the small number of international choirs that are invited to participate. For the Piedmont Children’s Choir, it will also be a world-expanding learning experience. With co-directors Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros, Singing Revolution filmmakers James and Maureen Castle Tusty return to Laulupido to follow the Piedmont choir’s journey in To Breathe as One (trailer here), which premieres on PBS World Channel this Friday.

As the Tustys documented in their previous film, even a heavily armed police state cannot silence thirty thousand voices singing in harmony. Frankly, the Estonians never fully submitted to their Communist occupiers. When cracks started appearing in the Iron Curtain, Estonia’s chorale tradition played a critical role unifying the renewed resistance. It is an inspiring story chronicled with sensitivity and authority in the Tustys’ The Singing Revolution, but they also provide a fine abridgment in Breathe.

The members of the Piedmont performance ensemble (predominantly high school and perhaps some middle school students) will come to appreciate that history as they learn their Estonian repertoire. The conscientious efforts of their director Robert Geary to connect the difficult pronunciations to their deeper cultural and historic meanings clearly bear fruit. In fact, they probably understand Baltic history better than most of our current foreign policy decision-makers (sadly, a pathetically low bar to clear).

A great deal of Breathe captures the Piedmont Choir’s person-to-person diplomacy, as they befriend and perform with their Estonian counterparts rather easily. It might sound pleasant but rather precious, in a “human interest” kind of way. However, the striking scale of the Laulupidu backdrop is not just photogenic. It provides a constant reminder of the wider significance of the festival.

Even if you do not think chorale music is your bag, the performances at Laulupidu will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. You can literally hear one hundred fifty years of tumultuous history crescendoing in triumph over their Czarist and Communist oppressors. It is also a timely reminder of the precariousness of liberty, particularly in light of Putin’s expansionist ambitions. Does anyone seriously think the Obama administration has a plan of response should the Russians move against our Baltic NATO allies?

While they stand alone, the macro Singing Revolution and micro Breathe would be even better viewed in tandem. Both films are highly recommended for students, but Breathe will likely be somewhat more accessible for young viewers. A must-see for lovers of freedom and chorale music, To Breathe as One airs this Friday (6/27) on PBS World Channel.