For their holiday concert, the choir Seattle Pro Musica performs European music spanning 1,000 years — including “Northern Lights” by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds — inspired by the aurora borealis.
Science tells us the aurora borealis, a shimmering display of colored light splashed across the night sky, is caused by highly charged electrons sliding back to a lower-energy state, releasing photons in the process.
There’s no disputing those dry facts. But as Karen P. Thomas — artistic director and conductor of the 80-member choir Seattle Pro Musica — reminds us, earlier explanations were rich in mythic poetry.
“Latvian folklore,” she writes in the program notes for Pro Musica’s “Northern Lights” holiday concert, “tells that the northern lights are the restless spirits of fallen warriors, still fighting their battles in the sky.”
Seattle Pro Musica: ‘Northern Lights — Music of the Baltics and Scandinavia’
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Seattle; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, Bastyr University Chapel, 14500 Juanita Drive N.E., Kenmore; $12-$35 (206-781-2766 or seattlepromusica.org).
In ancient Finnish stories, the lights — “fox fires” — result from a “magical fox sweeping its tail across the snow, sending sparks into the skies.”
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Scandinavian and Baltic cultures are full of enchanting accounts of polar auroras, as well as music about them. And while we may know much more about the physics behind the northern lights, that hasn’t dimmed the interest of modern composers from those regions.
“I really love the music of northern and Baltic countries,” Thomas says. “There’s a rich history in terms of choral music, and the contemporary compositions being written now, especially in the Baltics, are really compelling. Putting together a program of that music, built around the northern lights, was something I wanted to explore.”
Thomas was particularly interested in presenting a 2013 work called “Northern Lights” by rising Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. The hauntingly beautiful piece combines men’s and women’s voices along with ringing wineglasses, producing a diffuse and heavenly aural glow.
Thomas is pairing Esenvalds’ “Northern Lights” with a similarly titled excerpt from Veljo Tormis’ “Winter Patterns.” Tormis, from Estonia and considered one of the greatest living composers of choral music, employs some high-speed vocal calisthenics for women’s voices, at varying volumes, to express a different impression of an aurora’s fluctuation.
“Each evokes the lights in a different way,” Thomas says. “Tormis is fast and intricate whereas the Esenvalds is slow and ethereal. It’s interesting to hear them together and see how two composers describe the same thing, but with different approaches.”
The program, which spans 1,000 years of music from the medieval to the recent, includes selections from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Finland and Iceland. All the works will be sung in their original languages, giving Thomas and the choir quite a challenge.
“You get this historical perspective,” Thomas says, “but there’s nothing off-putting or challenging for the listener in the new music on the program. All of it has a real wintry feel, even if some pieces aren’t specifically holiday-themed.”
Before the evening performance on Dec. 12, Seattle Pro Musica will present its annual “Family Holiday Concert” as a matinee. Thomas designed it specifically for young children.
“It’s a little under an hour,” she says. “We do traditional Scandinavian carols and the Swedish tradition in which kids process through the audience with (electric) candles while we sing a hymn. There’s a singalong of carols like ‘Jingle Bells.’ It’s all very participatory and kid-friendly.”