World Premiere: Helsinki Chamber Choir
State of the Union: An Opera
The Helsinki Chamber Choir, in their first U.S. performance, will debut a contemporary opera written and composed by Eugene Birman and Scott Diel. The choir will also perform uniquely Finnish music by the essential composers of the Finnish choral tradition, including Jean Sibelius and Einojuhani Rautavaara.
The Helsinki Chamber Choir (Helsingin kamarikuoro) was founded in 1962 as the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir. It is currently Finland’s only professional chamber choir and is one of 20 members of the Tenso Network Europe, a network for professional chamber choirs. Other members include such accomplished choirs as Collegium Vocale Gent (Belgium), RIAS Kammerchor (Germany), DR Vokalensemblet (Denmark) and Eesti Filharmoonia Kammerkoor (Estonia).
The Choir’s concerts are regularly broadcast on radio and television both nationally and internationally. In 2006, a televised performance was featured on the international cultural channel ARTE of Michael Haydn’s Requiem and in 2013 of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Vigilia.
The Helsinki Chamber Choir’s recording of Magnus Lindberg’s Graffiti (with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo) was nominated for a Grammy in the contemporary music category in 2010. The group recorded a number of CDs for the Ondine label as the Finnish Radio Chamber Choir, including Rautavaara’s complete works for mixed a cappella choir. The choir’s most recent recording is the world premiere recording of Veli-Matti Puumala’s opera Anna Liisa (2015), with additional recordings being released in 2016.
Eugene Birman is a Latvian-born composer based in Oakland, California. He received his M.M. in Music Composition from the Juilliard School, a B.A. in Economics from Columbia, and is currently pursuing a D.Phil in Musical Composition from Oxford University. Scott Diel is an American-born writer based in Tallinn, Estonia, who has freelanced widely. The two have previously collaborated on several operas to critical acclaim. Their recent work, Nostra Culpa, eclectically weaves together the global debate surrounding post-financial crash austerity and a Twitter feud between a Nobel laureate columnist from the New York Times and the president of Estonia. Their unlikely inspiration results from a desire to step away from the formal opera genre and engage a wider audience with classical music that investigates contemporary issues.
In summer of 2015, Birman and Diel spent over two weeks on Rabbit Island in Lake Superior as artists in residence. There they began their collaboration for State of the Union (SOTU), a 40-minute operatic work for twelve voices. Part opera seria, part satire, SOTU considers environmental crisis, economic inequality, and the general obliviousness of society’s confused march forward. The opera condemns no one and everyone, yet its finale doles out redemption to those open to it.
SOTU is four characters – the environment, the rich, the middle class, and the poor – meeting and interacting over seven movements. It reflects a belief that many of our problems stem from how we view and treat one another. As a society we too often equate wealth with wisdom, and poverty with personal shortcomings. This work pushes forward the genre of classical music and also advances the medium to underscore a new subject: humanity’s relationship to its natural environment in the context of modern society.
SOTU has been brought to life thanks to generous support from the Rabbit Island Foundation, Northern Michigan University U.P. Beaumier Heritage Center, Department of Music/Siril Endowment for the Music Arts, Provost’s Office and DeVos Art Museum, Finlandia Foundation National, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, City of Helsinki Cultural Office, Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs and several individual donors.