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Mushrooms in Memoriam

img  Tobias

Lepo Sumera probably never complained about his relative lack of success. The way most people seem to remember him, he was a warmhearted, kind and enthusiastic man, always open for new challenges and with a constant urge to start something new. It was mostly outsiders who mourned his remaining in the shadows of fellow countrymen such as Arvao Pärt - and his early death just five years ago did not make it to any magazine covers. A new CD marks another chance to take on the oeuvre of one of Estonia's greatest composers and most constructive public figures.

Having said that, please try to forget everything you learnt about a possible "Estonian school" or any obvious similarities with other big Baltic names, such as Vasks or Tüür. Sumera's style was as idiosyncratic as can be and took many turns since the release of his first album in 1977. The only thing everyone agrees on is that it was accessible enough for the big masses, yet never trivial nor populist. Paavo Järvi, who was responsible for a lot of the recent recordings of the man's repertoire on BIS, puts it well: "Sumera's music is immensely original but not difficult to understand". Even though there is a pastoral, spiritual and sacred ambiance present in many compositions, every single one surprises and envelops the listener with a unique overall feeling. While his last work, his sixth sypmhony, is characterised by a steady and submergedly raging pulse, the final movement of his third symphony is played "quasi senza metrum" - floating in a space of its own, close to modern electronic drone compositions and sprinkled with harp tones. Speaking of electronics: Sumera was a pioneer in the field of electro-acoustic music, driven by a fascination for sound and the possibilities modern tools gave him to enrich his pieces' aural spectrum. His fourth symphony, which many consider the best work to start with, uses an electric guitar to great effect and in 1995 he took over as Director of the Studio of Electronic Music at the Estonian Academy of Music (a position he would hold until his death in the year 2000).

As we remarked, Sumera never really experienced a big-scale breakthrough. Despite this, his life was far from pittiful and rather marked by colourful diversity and an internationalism second to none. After studying choral conducting and composition in Talinn (where he was also born), he worked as a recording engineer and producer first, before beginning his post-graduate in Moscow. In the 80s, he lectures in Darmstadt, meets up with fellow composers in Colorado and becomes composer-in-residence at Glasgow's "New Beginnings" festival. In 1988, he takes on a job that hardly anyone would have expected of him: For four years, he is chosen as Estonia's Minister of Culture. These years leave their mark, being both extremely difficult and a source of inspiration. Instead of laying aside his musical activities, he increases them: "When I worked as the Minister I also wrote an incredible amount of music. I worked at night, mostly. Instead of organizing bureaucracy, I organized music which yielded much more easily at my will. For me composing is a good source of energy. And I have a feeling that this energy will be stored in between the notes, inside the score". The energy remains after his departure from politics and Sumera quickly takes on other duties. Apart from the already mentioned engagement in electronic music, he is elected Chairman of the Estonian Composers’ Union as well as Chairman of the Board of the Estonian Music Information Centre. First signs that this might prove too much are beginning to show in 1997, when he has his heart examined for the first time. Instead of despairing, however, the sounds and rhythms of the echocardiogramm serve as a basis for his multimedia track "Heart Affairs". Sumera dies in 2000 of heart failure.

The Swedish label BIS has done a remarkable job of making Sumera's compositions available to the public. All symphonies (except for number four) have been released (Numbers 1-3 on an attractive single disc) and with a new CD, they are slowly but surely closing the gap even more. "Mushroom Cantata & other choral works" has just been published and shows the incredible eclecticism of a man that has released about 70 film scores besides his "regular" works. These four choral works were written with conductor Tönu Kaljuste in mind and the latter has gladly accepted of leading the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra in a powerful and hypnotic performance, which features an element often missing in 21st-century compositions: humour. Which is why you'll be able to find a treatment of the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, a catalogue (in Latin) of mushrooms and the comic wordplay of Concerto per voci e strumenti. The album finally culminates in the almost thirty-minute long "Island Maiden's Song from the Sea", on which a team of actors joins the ranks of the choir and selected instrumentalists.

For sure, there is something inherently "modern" about the "Mushroom Cantata", as it incoporates many facets and genres into a seemless entity. Which, however, is not the main reason this comes highly recommended. Instead, what sets its author apart is his will to stick to a style that was obviously not leading him to fame, while he could have easily exploited the merrits of his compatriots and friends. He had a strong idea of what he wanted to express and especially how he wanted to go about that. We're not complaining about his lack of success, but you would want this mission to succeed in some form.

Homepage: Lepo Sumera
Homepage: Lepo Sumera at BIS Records
Source: Lepo Sumera at Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich
Source: Lepo Sumera at edition 49

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