Classical and Contemporary Music

Estonian music life here and now

Arvo Pärt
Photo: Birgit Püve
Contemporary Estonian music life is vivid and prolific. It is characterised by ample talent and numerous composers, musicians and music collectives who are renowned in Estonia and the world over. The main pillars of our musical culture are the long tradition of high-quality choir singing and the musical heritage of Arvo Pärt (1935), Veljo Tormis (1930–2017), Heino Eller (1887–1970) and Eduard Tubin (1905–1982). Contemporary composers have also contributed by composing exciting and versatile music. Our conductors Neeme Järvi (1937) and Paavo Järvi (1962) along with other top-level musicians and acclaimed collectives – the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian National Male Choir – are welcome guests on stages all over the world.

Eesti Kontsert, as the national concert organisation, arranges about 1,300 concerts and several music festivals every year. Our music life is also enriched by various musical events organised by smaller establishments. Some of the most acclaimed classical music festivals in Estonia include the Pärnu Music Festival, Haapsalu Early Music Festival and Tallinn International Organ Festival, along with Estonian Music Days and the International Contemporary Music Festival AFEKT.

The most important music theatre in Estonia is the Estonian National Opera, which presents its audiences with the best international stage repertoire and original Estonian compositions. Besides the Estonian National Opera, ballets, operas and operettas are also produced by Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu. The most highly regarded concert hall in Estonia is the historic Estonia Concert Hall in the heart of Tallinn. Recent decades have witnessed the completion of several new concert venues to offer further top-level musical experiences. These include the concert houses of Pärnu and Jõhvi and the new concert hall of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre.

Contemporary composers and their oeuvre

Jüri Reinvere
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
The most well-known contemporary Estonian composer is Arvo Pärt (1935), whose original composition style tintinnabuli, invented in 1976, has reached very large audiences and greatly influenced contemporary music. 2010 saw the opening of the Arvo Pärt Centre – the composer’s personal archive and an information and music centre for the preservation and study of his creative heritage. In addition to Pärt, many other contemporary composers have also received international acclaim. Composer Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959) who builds magnificent sound cathedrals, is the greatest contemporary symphonic composer of Estonia. His works are usually commissioned by musicians and orchestras outside of Estonia and are premiered on large stages abroad. Jüri Reinvere (1971) who has lived abroad since 1990 is also highly regarded – he is a composer, poet and essayist whose oeuvre focuses on existential topics through history and culture, nature and the poetry of human emotions.

Helena Tulve
Photo: Mari Arnover
In the 1990s, Estonian music turned a new page and, in contrast to neoclassicism and postmodernist stylistic collages, shifted towards sound modernism. One of the key exponents of this direction is Helena Tulve (1971) whose music is characterised by tensions in intonation and the depth of spacetime. Other representatives who approach this style in an entirely different yet unique manner are Toivo Tulev (1958), Märt-Matis Lill (1975) and Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes (1977) as well as Liisa Hirsch (1984), Elis Hallik (1986) and Marianna Liik (1992) from the younger generation.

One of the most popular composers in contemporary Estonia is Tõnu Kõrvits (1969), whose popularity is also on the rise abroad. Encompassing almost every music genre, his style combines poetic expressiveness, exceptional talent for melody and deep connections with Estonian folksong and mythology. Consonant sound and focusing on melodies is also characteristic of the oeuvre of Galina Grigorjeva (1962), Maria Kõrvits (1987), Pärt Uusberg (1986), Riho Esko Maimets (1988) and Rasmus Puur (1991). A slightly more playful approach and versatility of stylistic sources are typical of Timo Steiner (1976), Ülo Krigul (1978), Tõnis Kaumann (1971), Mirjam Tally (1976) and Tauno Aints (1975). Estonian music is also enriched by the works of much-loved composers from the older generation – René Eespere (1953), Peeter Vähi (1955), Alo Põldmäe (1945), Urmas Sisask (1960) and Olav Ehala (1950).

Tõnu Kõrvits
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
The greatest showcase of Estonian music is the annual Estonian Music Days festival, which provides an overview of the current situation of contemporary music. In 2019, the Estonian Composers’ Union and Estonian Music Days had a rare opportunity to organise the international contemporary music festival World Music Days, which brings together hundreds of professional musicians and composers. The spread of Estonian contemporary music has also been facilitated by the International Rostrum of Composers, which is one of the most important competitions of contemporary music and where Estonian composers such as Mari Vihmand (1996), Jüri Reinvere (2000), Helena Tulve (2004), Ülo Krigul (2007) and Maria Kõrvits (2016) have won 1st Prize.

Musicians and collectives

Ansambel U:
Photo: Laura Arum Lääts
There are three large permanent professional symphony orchestras in Estonia: the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the orchestras of the Estonian National Opera and the Vanemuine Theatre. Established in 1926, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is the oldest and most renowned regularly-performing symphony orchestra, with Olari Elts as its chief conductor and artistic director. Another permanent professional orchestra is the Pärnu City Orchestra from the city of Pärnu. The oldest permanent chamber orchestra is the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, which was founded in 1993 by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. Of project-based professional orchestras, international acclaim has reached the Nordic Symphony Orchestra established by Anu and Kadri Tali in 1997 and the Estonian Festival Orchestra created by Paavo Järvi in 2011. One of the most long-standing chamber ensembles in Estonia is the Tallinn String Quartet with 35 years of experience. Also with permanent members and regular concert activity is the string quartet Prezioso, which will soon celebrate its 15th anniversary. Prezioso’s repertoire spans classical quartet music to contemporary compositions. Established in 2014, the early music ensemble Floridante has also obtained an important position on the Estonian music arena. Leading contemporary music collectives include Ansambel U:, Ansambel YXUS, Una Corda and Resonabilis as well as the vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis, which specialises in Gregorian chant but also performs contemporary pieces.

The international calling card of the Estonian art of musical performance is our exceptional conductors – Neeme Järvi (1937), the head of the musicians’ dynasty, is one of the most acclaimed conductors today. Over the course of his extensive career he has stood before the very best orchestras of the world, and programmes conducted by him have been recorded on more than 500 albums. Neeme Järvi is the most long-standing chief conductor of the Estonian National Orchestra and since 2017 he has been its honorary chief conductor for life. Paavo Järvi (1962) currently holds the position of chief conductor at the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra and the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, while also acting as the artistic advisor of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The engagements of the opera conductor Mihkel Kütson, who resides in Germany, and those of Olari Elts, Arvo Volmer, Vello Pähn, Risto Joost and Mihhail Gerts are also noteworthy. Globally acclaimed Estonian conductors also include charismatic female conductors – the internationally renowned Anu Tali, and music director of Theatre Basel and chief conductor of the Flanders Symphony Orchestra Kristiina Poska. The young conductor Kaspar Mänd stands out as the chief conductor of the Pärnu City Orchestra and as a conductor at the Estonian National Opera.

Mihkel Poll
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
Of chamber musicians and soloists, a number of pianists have obtained international recognition. One of the most remarkable pianists is Ivari Ilja (1959), who has performed as a soloist and collaborated with many singers – including the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky – and other musicians across the most highly regarded concert venues in Europe, the United States and Asia. Of the younger pianists, Mihkel Poll (1986) has received considerable recognition with prizes from various prestigious competitions and participation as a solo pianist and soloist in international orchestras. In recent years, Sten Lassmann (1982) has gained renown for researching and promoting Heino Eller’s piano compositions. A number of other pianists with different creative characters also attest to the versatility of Estonian piano culture, including Peep Lassmann (1948) who is known for his interpretations of Messiaen’s piano compositions and his considerable contribution to Estonian pianism, along with Kalle Randalu (1956), Kadri-Ann Sumera (1977), Irina Zahharenkova (1976), Age Juurikas (1979), Ralf Taal (1974), Marko Martin (1975), Tanel Joamets (1968), Mati Mikalai (1971), Kai Ratassepp (1970) and others.

Ain Anger
Photo: HarrissonParrot
A great number of Estonian musicians permanently work abroad. Martin Kuuskmann (1971), a bassoon virtuoso and pedagogue based in the United States, is one of the leading soloists in his field and many composers have written music for him. Besides engagements as a musician, violinist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (1981) is a teacher in prestigious European music universities. Permanent members of highly esteemed orchestras include Kalev Kuljus (1975) (solo oboe of the NDR Elbphilharmonie), violinist Juta Õunapuu-Mocanita (1983) (Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne), cellists Indrek Leivategija (1986) (assistant concert master at the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra) and Silver Ainomäe (1982) (assistant concert master at the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra), double bassist Siret Lust (1990) who performs with nearly all the major orchestras of London and violist Liisa Randalu (1986) (Schumann Quartet). Singers who have gained international renown on opera and concert stages include the bass Ain Anger (1971, soloist of the Vienna State Opera), sopranos Mirjam Mesak (1990, soloist of the Bavarian State Opera), Aile Asszonyi (1975) and Katrin Targo (1980), mezzo-sopranos Monika-Evelin Liiv (1979), Kai Rüütel (1981), Iris Oja (1977), tenor Mati Turi (1968), baritone Lauri Vasar (1970) and others.

Marcel Johannes Kits
Photo: Kaupo Kikkas
Valued ensemble partners and soloists include the mainly Estonia-based concert master of the Estonian National Opera Mari Poll (1987) and the concert master of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra Triin Ruubel-Lilleberg (1988). The young cellist Marcel Johannes Kits (1995) has also reached international claim – having won first prizes at prestigious international competitions, he has been invited to perform as a guest solo cellist of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. As for the younger generation, impressive musicians include violinists Katariina Maria Kits (1995) and Linda-Anette Verte (1993), pianist Sten Heinoja (1993), cellists Theodor Sink (1992) and Valle-Rasmus Roots (1994), and many others.

Choral music and choral movement

Estonian National Male Choir
Photo: Jaan Krivel
Over the years, the most popular and lively field of Estonian music has been choir singing and choral culture as a whole, which has mainly relied on the activities of amateur choirs. In addition, there are also some professional choirs consisting of professional singers. One of our internationally most renowned music collectives is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, established in 1981 by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste. In addition to remarkable performances of works by Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt, the choir’s repertoire includes Gregorian chant as well as 20th century music. The Estonian National Male Choir, established over 75 years ago, has evolved from an a cappella choir under famous Estonian conductor Gustav Ernesaks to a world-famous collective with a notable share of large-scale compositions in their repertoire. Among amateur adult collectives Collegium Musicale and Voces Tallinn have stood out with their professional sound and performance aspirations in recent years. Estonia’s top-level choir culture has also brought us the first Grammy Award, which was bestowed upon the girls’ choir Ellerhein, the Estonian National Male Choir and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Paavo Järvi for the recording Jean Sibelius: Cantatas (Virgin Classics).

Ingrid Roose
Photo: Carol Liis Metsla
The most important event for Estonian amateur choirs are the general and youth song festivals that take place every five years – a tradition born in 1869 with the first Estonian Song Festival in Tartu. Year-round, minor local song days and celebrations, choral competitions and festivals (including the International Choir Festival Tallinn) and numerous choir music concerts also take place all over Estonia. Estonian choral culture is upheld by more than 800 choral conductors, including renowned and beloved conductors such as Hirvo Surva (1963), Lydia Rahula (1948), Raul Talmar (1959), Heli Jürgenson (1969), Mikk Üleoja (1970) and many others. In recent years, many charismatic and exiting young choral conductors have joined their ranks – Ingrid Roose (1990), Kuno Kerge (1988), Valter Soosalu (1992) and Mai Simson (1992).

Veljo Tormis
Photo: Tõnu Tormis
The choral works of Estonian composers are well-known and popular in many countries from Europe to the United States, Japan and Australia. The repertoire of most Estonian choirs includes the unique songs of the most beloved Estonian choral composer Veljo Tormis. The roots of these songs lie deep within the folklore of Estonians and kindred nations. The Veljo Tormis Virtual Centre was established in 2020 to preserve the invaluable legacy of Tormis’s oeuvre and foster its international popularity. In addition to Tormis, beautiful choral music has been composed by Mart Saar (1882–1963), Cyrillus Kreek (1889–1962), Ester Mägi (1922), Arvo Pärt, Anti Marguste (1931–2016), René Eespere, Urmas Sisask, Tõnu Kõrvits, Galina Grigorjeva, Tauno Aints, Andres Lemba (1968) and a number of younger composers, including Pärt Uusberg, Evelin Seppar (1986), Riho Esko Maimets and Rasmus Puur.