Heinavanker ensemble soothes the spirit

Hannah Jastram

Friday, Oct. 6, chorale enthusiasts gathered in the Memorial Chapel for a special treat. The six-person Heinavanker ensemble, hailing from Estonia, gave an a cappella performance of Gregorian chants, early polyphony, and Estonian sacred folk songs.
Rick Bjella, Director of Choral Studies and Professor of Music, received an e-mail from Olev, the leader of the group, a year and a half ago. “I asked for a CD of their singing and then was blown away by their quality,” he said.
Unfortunately, Bjella was unable to attend the performance, as he was in Lithuania guest conducting the professional chorus, Polifonija.
“The Lithuanian trip came up after I had already got a date reserved,” Bjella said. The members of the White Heron Chorale, a mixed-voice community choir that Bjella also conducts, housed the group and many were present at Friday’s performance.
The Heinavanker ensemble began singing together in 1988 in Tallinn, Estonia. “Heinavanker” means hay wagon and it refers to an altarpiece by Hieronymus Bosch.
The painting depicts a wagon carrying beautiful music rolling to its destruction while a praying angel and hidden demon vie for possession of the music. The group’s signature picture shows the members piled into just such a wagon.
Since 1996, the group has been touring extensively.
Phillip Swan, Associate Director of Choral Studies, organized the event in Bjella’s absence. He was amazed by the group’s ability.
“I thought their intonation and blend were impeccable,” Swan said. “I was particularly impressed by a piece near the end of the program where the two women were singing a ‘drone’ against the men’s beautiful four-part harmony. Since the notes were so perfectly blended and in tune, it caused us to hear overtones in the room.”
Amelia Perron was also impressed. “By most accounts, this was one of the best guest concerts heard here,” she gushed.
“For starters, they had a perfect technical command. Singers have this ability — theoretically — to be in tune in a way that a piano never can be,” said the sophomore.
“A really good group of singers can sing these intervals that are just perfect.”
The result is a ringing, open sound of perfect resonance, admired by Perron and all present.
Some of the songs that the ensemble performed were based on texts from the Lutheran Hymnal. The melodies, however, bore little resemblance to typical German tunes.
“The chords don’t have a specific harmonic direction,” Perron explained. “The harmonies kind of wind in and out amongst themselves without creating long-term tension to get somewhere.”
After the performance, a free-will donation was taken. Many people, however, opted to purchase CDs of the Heinavanker ensemble’s work in order to enjoy the delicious expertise in the comfort of their own homes.
“With music like this, you can just find a really comfortable spiritual place,” Perron smiled, “Even if you’re an atheist.