PEBCC festival’s music unites youths, cultures

2. september 2015 Isabelle de Pommereau

OAKLAND — A thrill ran through the crowd as the voices of 600 youths from all corners of the world filled the Scottish Rite Center this summer.

Singing, in Estonian, the famous song “Helin,” they inspired performers and audience alike with the richness of its history.

Once, close to one million Estonians in their tiny country on the edge of Finland had sung “Helin” in the nonviolent “singing revolution” that freed them from the yoke of Communism. Now “Helin” was one of the highlights of the Golden Gate International Children’s and Youth Choral Festival’s closing concert. And therein lies a story about the power of singing and song.

The lyrics of “Helin” are about music growing inside a person, making her grow. For Emi Fogg and Grete-Ly Pindma, the lyrics hold a special significance.

The two teenagers — Emi Fogg from Concord and Grete-Ly Pindma from Tallinn, Estonia’s capital — met a year ago in a vast choir of 30,000 at another singing event, the famed Laulupidu, which has rallied Estonians every five years for more than an entire century. Emi’s group, the internationally acclaimed Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, was one of few foreign choral groups to participate.

There was magic in the Laulupidu experience. Now, magic happened again at the Scottish Rite Center.

“I can’t think of any other time when I have sung with choirs from all over the world together in one place,” said Fogg, a Bentley School graduate heading for Brown University. “For a little bit, we weren’t that different. We were all there to sing. We were part of a big small world.”


More than music

The Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir has hosted the festival every three years since 1991, when Robert Geary, its artistic director, felt something was missing. His singers had competed around the world, “but it was just like, ‘We don’t even have this in the United States, and look at all the amazing things it does,'” Geary said.

The festival is the only opportunity for children’s and youth choirs to meet and compete on an international field in the United States.


In the beginning

At the choral festival, the young international singers turned the Bay Area into a global village. But Estonia, the minuscule northeastern European country with a huge singing tradition, held a special place. Saluveer was an international juror and his choir was the guest of honor. The Girls Choir of Järva County, another Estonian choir, also participated.

“They are at the apex of the choral art … and what they sing is something the rest of us learn from,” Geary said. “It’s an extraordinary experience to hear them.”

The two choirs hooked up 15 years ago at London’s Heathrow Airport on their way home from different international competitions.

The Bay Area singers had time to kill, so they started singing. Then they heard highly unusual voices raised in song, too. They were from Estonia — the TV Girls’ Choir.

A friendship was born. Three times — in 2004, 2009 and 2014 — the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir auditioned and won a place at the Estonian singing event. Last year, filmmakers James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty, who made the acclaimed “The Singing Revolution” documentary, focused on the PEBCC’s experience at Laulupidu in a new film, “To Breathe As One.”

“Imagine if the U.S. started working the way the Estonians worked back then, if people learned you don’t have to use violence to solve problems?” Fogg said. The film was filmed as part of the Golden Gate International Children’s and Youth Choral Festival. “It would change the whole world.”


Tallinn to Bay Area

“We’ve tried to get them to come for 10 years,” Geary said.

Money was a challenge. Enter the late Olga Kistler-Ritso, an Estonian American eye surgeon whose foundation donated $15,000 toward the Estonian choir’s trip. And the Estonian singers won a spot at several prestigious festivals, including the Oregon Bach Festival on July 12.

Like tens of thousands, Kistler-Ritso in 1944 had fled the Soviet regime, which occupied Estonia for 50 years until 1991.

In 2003, she founded the Museum of Occupation in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to help memorize the past century’s past occupations of Estonia, both German and Soviet. Her foundation boosted the Stanford University library’s Baltic collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Kistler-Ritso died in 2013.

“My mother had to flee and America saved her and gave her a place where she could thrive and be free, but she never stopped loved her country and she wanted to make sure that never again the Estonians would live as slaves,” said Sylvia Thompson of Oakland, who now runs her mother’s foundation, the Kistler-Ritso Estonian Foundation.

“In Estonia, singing is a key part of freedom,” Thompson said. She said having the Estonian singers come to America is “a really great we to put forward my mother’s idea of freedom. It’s important to know the Estonian story.”

On July 15, Estonian singers mesmerized crowds at Stanford Memorial Church during an a cappella concert of sacred music.

“I expected the choirs to be fantastic, but what really surprised me is that they filled the memorial church,” Thompson said. The Kistler-Ritso Foundation sponsored the concert.

The experience overwhelmed Eeva Liisa Trei of Estonia’s TV Girls’ Choir.

“How could it not when singing to a crowd of 700 in a sacred place like the Stanford Memorial Church,” said the Estonian singer.

“Stanford was unbelievable,” Saluveer said and so was performing with Anne Tomlinson’s Los Angeles Children’s Chorus at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church on July 22. “I was standing in the middle of the main street of Pasadena filled with American people who cared and waved.”

“In today’s troubled world, music is a tremendous and unfaltering tool for understanding and bonding different cultures and peoples,” said Saima Kint, a retired chemical physicist from Oakland. Born in Estonia in a family who fled the Soviet occupation in 1944, she has volunteered with the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir and the Golden Gate choral festival for years.

Rachel Adams of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir agreed.

The Golden Gate International Youth Choral Festival “broadened my world view. With every international musical friendship I make, the world becomes a more intimate place,” Adams said. “The countries we hear about in the news are no longer populated with faceless bodies, but real people with their own stories.”