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Tallinn: Making It New

In spite of, or perhaps because of, this sudden influx of funds, there is a sameness to Tallinn's version of Western urbanism. The names of dance clubs are passwords to hipdom: Hollywood Club, Enter, Spirit. There is L.A.-style security in the shape of beefy guys wearing dark clothes and earpieces. Though far from illegal, Tallinn's club life has an urgent edge, as if dancing and drinking feel better because they have only recently become available. One focal point of Estonia's monied class is the restaurant and bar Pegasus, around the corner from the town hall and a nearly 800-year-old Gothic church. The restaurant is all hard, synthetic surfaces, sharp angles, and primary colors; the food, careful, exquisite, and expensive. By early evening—especially on Fridays—BMW's, Mercedes-Benzes, and Porsches begin to pull up, and the clientele turns glossy and a little rough: young men in designer suits and their molls. A DJ spins techno. And an unofficial club eventually gathers. It includes the mostly young, and often Western-educated, musicians, poets, and designers who are behind Estonia's cultural awakening.

Two of the most important young musicians are Anu and Kadri Tali, twin sisters and the conductor and manager, respectively, of the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra, whose members, drawn from the orchestras of 17 countries, play at the orchestra's five yearly festival performances. The twins are something of a phenomenon in Estonia: they are 29 and blonde and widely considered to be beautiful, qualities that rarely go hand in hand with directing a major orchestra. They take their responsibility as spokeswomen for Estonia's new sophistication seriously. The orchestra, they say, is meant to bolster national identity while giving talented musicians a chance to play, and perhaps, also, a chance for engagements in the West. The evening I meet them, at the stark, chic Pegasus, they sit side by side drinking wine, describing Tallinn as "Europe's lost dream." The departure of the Soviets, they claim, has peeled back layers of conditioning.

"Estonia is on its way to acknowledging its own culture," Anu says. And music is a perfect example of that culture reaching the rest of the world—the Talis are not the first Estonian musicians to have achieved international recognition. The Tallinn-born, 39-year-old Paavo Järvi is music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as well as a champion of Estonia's numerous classical composers. (One of his 20-plus recordings, Estonia, is an important introduction to the music of the country, ranging from the lush romanticism of Eduard Tubin to the cool minimalism of Arvo Pärt.) Järvi attributes much of Estonian musicians' success to the training they received in Leningrad and Moscow. And while he doesn't exactly thank the Russians, he says, "In a society where human rights were restricted and access to the West was blocked, art became the only outlet for people, especially intellectuals, to express true thoughts and feelings."

Since 1991, that expression has found new momentum. Estonia has three orchestras, among them the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Major renovations to Tallinn's main concert hall have been completed. And thanks to Järvi's father, Neeme Järvi, himself music director of the Detroit Symphony and the principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic, there is now a state-of-the-art Academy of Music in the center of Tallinn. "It was my father's dream," Paavo Järvi says. "He was instrumental in finding the government support and was the largest private donor for this project." Music has become not only a means of national expression but also Estonia's most valuable export. "Just as in Sweden," Järvi says, "where every little boy thinks he can become a tennis player because of Björn Börg, in Estonia, because of my father, every young Estonian thinks he can become a conductor."

Under the Soviets, music was not just a distraction from political realities but a means of effecting political change. The song festivals, Järvi tells me, started out as folk music festivals. Amateur singers, schoolkids, and choral groups gathered on "a stage larger than ten Hollywood Bowls" and sang. "You would have something like thirty to forty thousand people performing," Järvi says, "and up to a hundred fifty thousand people listening to them sing." When the struggle for independence started, the festivals took on another dimension. People in regional costumes held hands as they belted out patriotic songs. "The Russians didn't know what to do. They couldn't shoot into a crowd of singing people, after all. They would stand there with their guns, at the edge of the crowd, but they never fired a shot. It was the most peaceful revolution of all, our singing revolution."


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