Founded 26 years ago by Tönu Kaljuste, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra has long been associated with Estonia’s most celebrated export: Arvo Pärt. Through extensive workshopping, recording and performance of Pärt’s music, both the TCO and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (also founded by Kaljuste) have found international recognition – helping to consolidate Estonia’s reputation as one of the foremost exponents for contemporary classical music. Those hoping, then, to catch a spot of tintinnabuli at the TCO’s “Point Points Pooointss...” – part of this year’s World Music Days festival in Tallin – were in for quite the shock. There was no sign of the old master, nor indeed his signature musical style in a concert which, for all but the hardiest of chin-strokers, was challenging.

Tallinn Chamber Orchestra
© Sven Tupits

Conductor Risto Joost enthusiastically guided his cohort of string players through a programme made up almost exclusively of atonal works – each painstakingly scored by a roster of new-music bigwigs, most of whom were present in the audience. The theme for this year’s festival was “Through the Forest of Songs” – and full marks to each composer in this regard, for at times one certainly felt immersed in dense, intellectual thicket. Those looking to the programme notes in the hope of illumination were likely to be disappointed. In the foreword to Adam Porębski’s Semi-Overture, for example, all the Polish composer could offer were six baffling questions, beginning with: “What is a “Semi-overture”?”. I don’t know Adam, you tell us.

This is ironic, because out of the five atonal pieces featured, Porębski’s displayed the greatest sense of continuity. Fragments of melody, cleverly shared between each section of the orchestra, formed recognisable cells that were developed with each repetition, building towards a powerful and musically effective conclusion. Conversely, Slovakian composer Adrian Demoč states quite candidly in his programme note that Strings: Walls, Clusters, Dreams is to speak for itself. And in that sense it did: walls of sound? Oh yes. Dense clusters? Most definitely. Dreams? Let’s put it this way – Demoč is eating too much cheese before bedtime.

Also featured was the premiere of native Estonian Liisa Hirsch’s Canvas – a steadily morphing orb of microtones that attempts to repurpose the just intonation and woody timbres of flageolets. Two Korean compositions – the concert’s titular Point Pooint Poooints by DaeSeob Han, and Junghae Lee’s Sorimuni 2 – made good use of the extraordinary array of textures and extended techniques available to string players, although one had to conclude that no amount of trickery and textural innovation can make up for a basic lack of musical coherence.

Offering some welcome contrast, the two pieces that bookended this whirlwind concert were built primarily on tonal foundations. After a furious opening that smacked heavily of Berio’s Sequenza VIII, Jonas Tarm’s Memories of the Earth gave way to sensitively constructed chords that were gradually allowed to shift from their triadic moorings. The concluding work by Estonian grandmaster Jaan Rääts was a sequel to his landmark 1961 Concerto for Chamber Orchestra – still one of the most widely performed pieces of Estonian orchestral music. This wonderfully kooky piece – written 26 years after its predecessor – displayed elements of both neoclassicism and minimalism. Its combination of rising arpeggio passages and witty, duck-diving melodies provided a concrete ending to what might otherwise have been a decidedly marshy affair.

Whilst there can be little doubt that the deeply challenging nature of these pieces would appeal only to a small minority of classical music fans, I am nonetheless hugely impressed by the TCO’s commitment to commissioning new music, and their skill in performing such repertoire. All but one of the works performed was written in the last seven years, and for such a renowned ensemble to do this (one that could very easily have settled for a programme of, say, Arvo Pärt) demonstrates a courage distinctly lacking in the management of many comparable UK ensembles. It is equally a testament to Estonian culture that the concert – and indeed every concert I attended at the festival – was packed with young and enthusiastic audience members.

But no amount of philosophising can mitigate the profound sense of relief I felt in hearing those gloriously tonal opening bars of Rääts’s concerto – a feeling surpassed only by my renewed conviction that Charles Ives’s father, George Edward Ives, was quite right to assert: “Why tonality should be thrown out for good, I can’t see.” Rääts’s adroit flirtations with the darker forces in music went on to vindicate Ives’ subsequent assertion: “Why it should always be present, I can’t see either.”

Timmy's press trip to Tallinn was funded by Estonian Music Days