June 22, 2008

Estonians Fight for Their Freedom Through Music

By Zoe Fraley, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Jun. 22--In Estonia, music is a measure of freedom.

As a nation that spent many decades under the constant watch of Soviet Russia, singing was an expression of a culture that refused to be crushed. It was a bloodless but poignant act of rebellion.

Now that Estonia is no longer under Soviet rule, Tim Fitzpatrick wanted to explore the country's rich musical tradition. He's bringing that tradition stateside with the Bellingham Chamber Chorale's "Visions of Estonia" concert, showing today.

"The thing about this that's so fascinating is that music and singing has been the one thread that's held the country together," says Fitzpatrick, 49, a Western Washington University assistant professor of choral music and vocal education.

"Displaying folk culture, music and dance was part of the revolution. (It was) the willful display of national identity." Fitzpatrick visited the country for one month in summer 2007, funded partially by a faculty research grant.

"I had thought about Estonia because there are a number of notable composers that do choral music," he says. "Estonia has a rich, strong choral tradition."

While there, he did research at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and attended an international music conference. He also had the chance to experience the annual Youth Song and Dance Festival, where more than 18,000 kids from throughout the country take the stage to sing, with a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

For Fitzpatrick, the highlight of the festival, held in the capital city of Tallinn, was when the crowd sang the Estonian national anthem.

"People are in tears over singing their national anthem," he says. "I don't know if there's anything in our culture that matches that."

Today, Fitzpatrick is conducting the Bellingham Chamber Chorale concert "Visions of Estonia," which combines Estonian choral works with American hymns to paint a picture of the deep connection both countries have with music.

"It's a cultural exchange," he says. " 'Visions of Estonia' is an educational outreach in a way. It's also an opportunity to expose western choirs to choral music that is very beautiful."

Fitzpatrick is planning another trip back to the Baltics this month, so he can fully enjoy the music, the people and the landscape, which strikingly combines medieval cobblestone streets with drab Cold War-era housing.

"It resembles the Northwest in a lot of ways," he says. "There's so much that's familiar, but at the same time, it's the Baltics and it's so different."

Reach Zoe Fraley at [email protected] or call 756-2803. Visit her blog Style & Error at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.


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