Hirvo Surva — Song Celebrations conductor for quarter of century

Postimees valis tänavuseks aasta inimeseks 26. üldlaulupeo kunstilise juhi Hirvo Surva.


Postimees Person of the Year 2014, artistic director of 26th Song Celebration Hirvo Surva (51) first conducted a choir at the early age of 15.

At 17, he hauled his first one – Kiisa Commune Female Choir – to the Laulupidu Celebrations. The first time he conducted the united choirs under the huge arch was when a man of 28. Six years after that, he directed his initial youth song celebration. An exception in the again-independent Estonia, Mr Surva has been trusted with the management of three celebrations out of the ten youth and general ones held over the period.

Hirvo Surva, who was it that first invited you to conduct at the Celebration?

Tõnu Kaljuste, who in 1991 was doing the «Bridges of Song» (Estonian-American song celebration – edit). Then, he invited lots of young conductors, me included. Tõnu was the first to open the gate to the young. In 1997, I became artistic director thanks to Lydia Rahula who had come up with the idea of the celebration but was not willing to carry the artistic director load so she invited me for that. 

Not every conductor would fit for the celebrations. Who would?

That’s a question for the united choir – the singers are the litmus. At the Celebration, one will hear how a conductor is received.

Having conducted at the celebrations for a quarter of a century, what do you remember of your initial one as a schoolboy?

I was at the youth song celebration while at 2nd or 3rd grade with Kohtla-Järve 1st secondary school boys’ choir and till today I remember Gustav Ernesaks as well as Tuudur Vettik from that celebration. I remember the youthful feeling when the eyes tear up and the air is charged. It was a powerful feeling of inner freedom, one passed on even without words.

Did you think back then it would be great to one day stand before the big choir?

No, not that, but somewhere at the beginning of 1980ies when we did Kavaler (Hirvo Surva was lead singer at the band Kavaler – edit) we had a bet whether our bass guitarist Villu Valdmaa will one day sing solo at Estonia [the theatre] and whether I will one day conduct the general song celebration. And it came to pass.

Now, as you did conduct your first general song celebration, it just so happened that it unexpectedly turned into two celebrations, not just two concerts!

Yes, that’s what happened. Both stood alone, while making a whole. But a song celebration cannot be talked about as an «I, me» thing. The correct word is «we, us». The celebrations begin with the conductor, the singers of the smallest choir. All who participate, whether as singers, dancers, musicians, or as part of the public, invest a piece of their soul, as, to this event, a numb one won’t come. I’m totally convinced of that. And, these pieces of the souls put together will make up the song celebration.

After the celebration last summer, many felt where do we go from here?

We are always asking what’s the new thing is going to be next celebration. But, first and foremost, the song celebrations are carrying of a tradition. The Laulupidu is the Laulupidu, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We might as well have something rock solid.

So with this past one, there was nothing new. The music is developing in time, anyway, and one has to go along with that. We are having new composers coming up constantly: Pärt Uusberg, Erki-Sven Tüür, Andres Lemba and others. Lots of new and very beautiful music was born. Our song celebrations have their own definite tradition, their definite opening and closing songs, and we have our crystallised choir types.

In Latvia, for instance, almost the entire celebration is carried by mixed choirs. The last summer but one, as we went to the celebration in Riga, they had brought out the female choirs after a long while. I think we might stick to every choir type having their own songs – this will impact the development of choir types.

In the world, the Estonian song celebration is gaining its fans, while in Estonia, in Ida-Viru County or right behind the song festival grounds – in Lasnamäe – we have the compatriots who never make it there to sing or to listen. How do you see it, could Laulupidu be an opportunity for integration?

Thinking about Ida-Virumaa, they have very strong Russian choirs who work hard and attend the song celebrations. At the preliminary rehearsals, I am always amazed by them. In all earnestness, the children there are being taught Estonian choir music. There are the little problems with the language, but this year their youngest choirs surprised us by singing in very beautiful Estonian. In boys’ choirs, they had a stronger accent. This is integration.

Should something be done for us to have more choirs at the celebration of Russian native tongue?

I think that those who so desire will sing and will come. I have Russian boys singing in my own boys’ choir (Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir – edit). They do come with pleasure, sing well and feel good about it. Makes no sense to force anybody.  

What does music instruction look like, in Estonia’s schools?

It varies. Heino Kaljuste once put it right: as long as the Estonian school sings, the song festival lives. The song celebration starts from school and from how a teacher is able to engage the kids that they would stay with singing later in life.

How are things, currently, with young choir conductors?

We don’t have too many to spare, the bench is not too long. But we have some song celebration conductors hatched out of schools: Anne Kann from Orissaare, Anneli Traks from Tartu and others. We will have to think about motivating music teachers at schools. A school director can’t hire a choir conductor – there’s no such specialty at schools. We do have hobby instructors...

What’s the difference?

A hobby instructor’s salary is much lower than that of a teacher. Oh for a teacher’s salary for choir lessons!

For a bystander, it might seem what’s the big deal conducting a choir – once or twice a week, an hour at a time, and that’s it. But what’s the reality?

These hours need preparation, thinking about the repertoire. A child must have such an interesting time and the choir practice so he wants to attend. A sign of the times, however, is the musical illiteracy at schools.

What do you mean by that?

Knowing the notes. It’s real patchy, at some schools they do teach it and at others they do not. Reading the notes is like knowing a foreign language. That’s the language of the music. And in gymnasium level, they have almost altogether stopped singing at the music classes! All they do is learning some composers birth/death dates by hears, ones they might find whenever. The youth must be sung with!  

We do have a problem with scarcity of men’s choirs in Estonia, and clearly the past summer’s weak link was them. The dancers, by their men’s dance celebrations, have managed to attract many more of the guys. What to do with the male choirs?

Honestly, I feared for worse when it came to men’s choirs at the celebration. They were less than a thousand men, there. The guys in the choirs are getting older and older. Still, it was good to hear they did not sound old. We did have the youngsters at boys’ choirs help out, and that was good support. 

Here, I need to extend thanks to Mikk Üleoja who, as one responsible for male choirs did a remarkable job in preliminary rehearsals. 

Why has that happened? What to do to get new wind into male choirs?

It’s in the society – many are leaving Estonia to find work. 15 years ago we begun to create young men’s choirs and some – alas, some few rare ones – have survived. It’s probably up to boys’ choirs to ensure new singers entering male choirs.

Then there’s the issue of the choirs by Estonians abroad. Increasingly, Estonians do dwell all over the world and for them the song and dance celebrations are a main way to maintain the identity. You did personally visit Canada to help the choirs there to come attend.

They do take it dead serious. From Toronto, five choirs attended the celebration, including a youth choir. Well they did have problems but I worked with them for a week and they did their very best. For them, this is a real life and death thing, whether Estonianhood will last at all. Lots of kids do already speak English only. I also visited Luxembourg where they have an Estonian children’s choir. It isn’t easy there either, but the main thing is the will.

A grand event at the song celebration was when, at the end, Eri Klas came up and bequeathed you the baton of Gustav Ernesaks. Were you prepared for that?

No. He did get the idea during these two celebration days only.

By that, Eri Klas did lay quite a burden on you – of responsibility. How will you manage that?

I rather see it as trust extended to me. Even so, I will not be doing anything worse or better because of that; but I do feel something has been trusted into my hands. Naturally, I will some day pass it on.

Will you be participating at the ideas competition for the next 2019 song celebration?

There’s still time to go, I’ll need to think this over. Not promising anything. (Yesterday, the 2017 youth song celebration idea competition came to its conclusion; Hirvo Surva, while not participating, sits in the jury to pick out the best idea – edit.)