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Estonia tour touched hearts, lives

Oregon City chamber choir steps into Baltic nation's proud history


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF EMILY FERGUSON - The 100,000-strong music festival in Estonia featured a massive, 30,000-voice choir.When I mentioned to friends and family members that I planned on traveling to Estonia this summer, I was met with a variety of responses. Most had no idea where the country was, while a few others heard "Austria" or simply did a double take.

And for a country as small as the tiny Baltic state, it's not surprising that the majority of Portland people wouldn't know or understand why Estonia had worked its way into my heart, capturing my imagination and tipping my hand to spend all of my vacation 5,000 miles from home.

My expectations were sky high. I'd grown up singing my entire life, and even after college, continued to perform with my old director in a small chamber choir called Unistus, or “fantasy” in Estonian. I was going to the country of my dreams to sing with Oregon City’s Unistus Chamber Choir in situations that I couldn't have quite imagined before I arrived there.

Stepping off a ferry, that had brought us across the Baltic Sea from Helsinski, Finland, and on to Estonian soil for the first time was surreal. Pictures and many happy hours on YouTube can only do so much justice. Finally seeing the picturesque towers and bumpy cobblestone streets of old town and catching a glimpse of the centuries-old cathedral at the center of it all was too much to grasp. It took another week before my fellow choir members stopped turning to one another with the familiar exclamation that we were, finally, in choral nirvana.

A day after meeting in Tallinn, the group traveled across the country to the island of Saaremaa. We checked into our hotel and prepared for our first concert — around 90 minutes of music in Estonian, with a handful of English pieces to showcase our own cultures. When we walked on for the performance it felt like many of the other concerts we had given in and around the Portland area.

Except it was nothing of the sort.

At our final performance before Unistus left the United States and headed for Europe, our director Lonnie Cline leaned in for a quiet word with the choir.

"I can't wait," he said, pausing to control his emotions, "to see the looks on your faces when you get it."

And in that concert, I got it.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF EMILY FERGUSON - John Howard marches in the front row of the Unistus Chamber Choirs formation for the parade, just after walking into the 100,000-strong music festival in Estonia. The people had a favorite piece — a song which talks about how the Estonian people scattered as the country was ravaged in the wake of World War II. In the lyrics, it tells the wayward people to return to their fatherland as a bee returns to the hive after a long journey.

The audience stood with tears in their eyes and applauded until we sang the song again, and once they rose to their feet a second time, reality began to wash over the members of the choir. This little country, a little smaller than the population of the Portland area, wears its heart on its sleeve. They touch one another through music and dance, celebrating their newfound freedom from oppression, the latest being under the former Soviet Union, to come together as a people.

by: COURTESY OF EMILY FERGUSON - The Unistus Chamber Choir stands in front of the stage as things wind down after the final day of the Estonia festival. Lonnie Cline, choir director, holds the wreath.We moved on to a concert in the nearby 14th century castle the next day, and sang in the 14th century St. John's Church in Tartu on the following evening. Our last performance was in the capital city of Tallinn, and the people were on their feet before we finished our first song. Each performance eclipsed the last, not because we were better in tune or sang with more passion, but because the sense of magic grew every time we were met with the same joy, passion and love from the Estonian people.

By the time the rehearsals began for Laulupidu, the song-party music festival we had come for, my life had changed. We lined up by the thousands to stream into the cavernous festival grounds. Several thousand basses, several thousand tenors, altos and sopranos made their way up the hundred-some steps and filled the stage designed for 15,000 singers. We were cozy, surrounded by more musicians than I had ever seen in one place.

Then a man in front of me turned around and said, “We must move backward, they are making preparations to move another 10,000 singers on stage,” and the children's choirs wandered through the doors, filling the space between the stage and the thousands of folding chairs set up on the concert lawn.

When we sang together, as I told friends and family back home, the only difference between singing and listening was the vibration you feel in your throat, the amassed choir of more than 20,000 was so powerful.

We marched in the parade on the first day of the festival, waving our flags as tens of thousands watched us march into the festival grounds along with the other singers and nearly nine thousand dancers. I thought things had reached their pinnacle — only to stop in wonder once the audience became visible through the massive doors to the stage.

More than 100,000 awaited the performance. And when they stood along with us to sing in full voice, it was difficult to grasp how it could ever end. Surely, there is no place in the world with such a passion for music, such a love of creation and a deep appreciation for the way people connect through art.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the festival's theme — Aja Pututus, Pudutuse Aeg — means “Touched by time, a time to touch.”

I cannot speak for the members of the choir who were there with me, but I can say with certainly that I will never be the same. I'm back in the states, but part of me never really came home. That part of me still stands on the stage with the Estonian people, singing for the rest of time.

John William Howard, a Clackamas County native who attended Clackamas Community College, lives in Scappoose and works for Pamplin Media Group's South County Spotlight.