Sisu and Chicago Chorale

Sisu is a Finnish term loosely translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any language. Sisu has been described as being integral to understanding Finnish culture. The literal meaning is equivalent in English to "having guts", and the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. However sisu is defined by a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage but the ability to sustain an action against the odds. Deciding on a course of action and the sticking to that decision against repeated failures is sisu. It is similar to equanimity, except the forbearance of sisu has a grimmer quality of stress management than the latter.” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Our concerts are upon us. Though our Finnish work, Rautavaara’s Vigilia, is only half the concert, it has consumed more than its share of our time and energy, and it threatens to turn us toward the Finns, at least in terms of this definition. I suspect the work is not so difficult for Finns to sing, as it is for us: it is in their native language, after all, and is paced according to the cadences of that language. We Americans have had to drill the language a great deal, adjust our vocal production toward new sounds, and learn something about the rhythm of Finnish prose. We also have had to become accustomed to the character of Finnish Orthodox worship, at least insofar as it is represented in this piece-- and this is new to all of us. We have worked very hard; it has often felt as though we “decided on a course of action and stuck to that decision against repeated failures”-- sisu all the way.

Over the past months I have written frequently about the composers and pieces on this program; but I have not ventured much into the area of religious expression, except tangentially in the case of Poulenc. And religious expression is really what all these pieces are about-- each grows out of, and reflects, a distinctive tradition, and requires a distinctive approach from the choir. Rautavaara composes a work specifically for the Finnish Orthodox Church, and sharply differentiates it from the Russian church which planted the denomination in Finland-- claims instead descent from ancient Byzantine worship and practice, and interprets it for the present through original and compelling language which can only be described as “Finnish,” an entirely new and unfamiliar language to Chorale. Shchedrin, on the other hand, celebrates the far better known liturgical tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially the musical-liturgical style which flowered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before being quashed by the revolution of 1917. Chorale has sung music of this genre in the past, notably the Rachmaninoff Vespers in 2009; we recognize the style, have worked with the Old Slavonic language—though it is by no means easy for us.

Poulenc’s motet reflects both the neo-classical, rational 20th century French tradition, and the voice of Roman Catholic worship—one hears in the background, the voices of monks chanting in Solesmes style. The relative facelessness of this music reminds one of the choral music fostered by the church in the 15th and 16th centuries-- it communicates on many levels, all of them brilliantly worked out, all of them understated. Paulus’ work, on the other hand, seems to spring from a genuinely American tradition – protestant, evangelical, somewhat theatrical, appealing primarily to the emotions.

I recall, from a college choral methods course, a statement by our teacher, Weston Noble, to the effect that a good choir develops its own voice; and that this voice, though it adapts to various periods and styles, tends to be constant and unmistakable. Perhaps Chorale has such a voice-- reflective of the voices and personalities we attract, reflective of the way I use and direct them. Not a bad thing. But we attempt, within the strictures of that voice, to interpret and reflect many composers, many styles; and we do that through conscientiously seeking to understand who the composers are, what they intend, and the languages in which they present themselves. There is a heck of a lot more to singing, then pear-shaped tones!

Takes a lot of sisu to put on a concert like this one.