James River Singers call forth the windy Baltic Sea

Late at night on Sept. 28, 1994, the passenger ferry Estonia met rough weather in the Baltic Sea en route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden. Waves rolled the ship over on its side. It lost power and, plunged in darkness, was unable to relay its position to rescuers. In what is now considered one of the worst disasters in modern maritime history, 852 people died of drowning and hypothermia. Three years later, Finnish composer Jaakko M„ntyj„rvi crafted a requiem in memory of those who perished in the Baltic that night titled Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae.

This weekend’s concert by the James River Singers focuses on music from the regions surrounding the Baltic Sea and features the Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae as well as works by the Estonian Arvo P„rt, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and others. Jeffrey Riehl, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Richmond, is Artistic Director of the 28-voice ensemble.

According to singer Seth Roberts, Riehl has a knack for putting programs together with a common thread running through them — in this case, place. “Jeff wanted to take this really rich musical tradition, represented by composers both familiar and unfamiliar, and weave a program out of that,” says Roberts.

In reviewing works by Baltic composers for the concert, Riehl stumbled across M„ntyj„rvi’s requiem for the Estonia, and included it. Taken all together, the program’s works are diverse and represent a wide range of styles, says Roberts, but “they’re related stylistically in the sense that there’s a contemplative or meditative tradition out of which they’re growing.” He cites Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, written as a liturgical cycle for the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the music of Arvo P„rt, whose Berliner Messe will be performed, as examples of this tradition.

In the face of such a wild and dangerous sea, artists and fishermen alike might well pause to meditate on the forces outside their control through beautiful music rich with a different kind of power — the human voice as balm, as prayer, as celebration.

The James River Singers perform Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church. Tickets are $10-$15. 4602 Cary St. Road. 897-6023.


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