Timeless music

Conductor Paul Hillier brings his program of Baltic composers to a downtown landmark for one night

Paul Hillier, whose affinity for Finnish, Latvian and Estonian composers will be on display in Sacramento on Wednesday.

Paul Hillier, whose affinity for Finnish, Latvian and Estonian composers will be on display in Sacramento on Wednesday.

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 29; at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1430 J Street; $75 concert, $50 reception after concert.

In Renaissance times, most composers were singers. Many began their careers as children in the cathedral choirs they later led. Scholars muse, “What if we were back in those days and naturally grew up singing such music? What wonders would we unlock?”

English conductor Paul Hillier is such a time traveler, almost literally. It’s one reason why his concerts and recordings are so greatly sought after. He began within an ancient tradition, first as a singer in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and later in the Queen’s Chapel Royal at Windsor Castle. A biography beginning with these entries leads one to believe the subject’s birth date should be around the year 1600, but no, Hillier is probably in his 40s.

On Wednesday, October 29, in another St. Paul’s—an Episcopal church in downtown Sacramento—the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under Hillier’s direction, will sing a remarkable program titled Baltic Voices, featuring old Russian Orthodox music, plus modern pieces by Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Peteris Vasks—all equally alluring.

For Hillier, there is a strong connection with ancient and modern music. “Indeed, yes, there is a correlation between compositional techniques of the [ancient] masters and contemporary composers,” he said over the phone from his home in Denmark.

Consider Pärt: Hillier has been instrumental in bringing that Estonian composer’s refined music to world prominence. There is something ancient within Pärt’s work, yet it is totally new. Composer Arnold Schoenberg once said that all great music “sounds modern”—in other words, timeless. Hillier has a knack for unlocking the timeless in music. This he does with the help of superb musicians and a love for the art of music-making. But there is a simpler reason for attending his concerts: The music itself is ravishing. As Hillier noted when discussing 17th-century Russian Orthodox composers who studied in Italy and brought back Western techniques to blend within the traditions of the Russian Church, “I’ve been interested in this music for a long while. And this Estonian choir, though not Russian, can speak Russian fluently. Russian music is a strong part of the Baltic choral tradition.”

Hillier didn’t just study choral traditions; he grew up with them, sometimes within the very cathedrals for which the music was conceived. After co-founding the Hilliard Ensemble, he rose to international prominence as its director due to the remarkable music the group recorded. In the 1980s, he taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and after a stint as a colloquium fellow at Amherst College in Massachusetts, he moved to the University of California, Davis, where he was a music professor until 1996.

While in Davis, Hillier founded the Theatre of Voices, an acclaimed group that specializes in three types of music: medieval and Renaissance polyphony, such as Josquin Desprez, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd; Anglo-American folk psalmody, known as the “shape note” tradition; and contemporary composers of the “new tonality,” such as Arvo Pärt. In 1996, one of the nation’s best music schools acquired Hillier’s talents when he became director of the Early Music Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. Today he is also an honorary professor of music at the University of Copenhagen.

“I served as guest conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on two or three occasions,” Hillier said. “When founder Tonu Kaljuste retired after 25 years, he offered the position to me.” Hillier has embarked on a series of recordings and a tour presenting the choral music of the Baltic countries, Scandinavia and Russia. Their latest recordings are Baltic Voices and The Powers of Heaven, both of them on the Harmonia Mundi label.

And how did this gorgeous music come to Sacramento? Ingrid McCord, a registered nurse who is junior warden at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, noticed that roof repairs were needed for the historic 1903 building. To raise funds for the project, the church decided to literally “raise the roof” with glorious music. The promoter for the Estonian choir was looking for a venue on this tour, and McCord, unaware of Hillier’s reputation, “leaped at it, on total faith.”