Double Time (Scanorama 6/02)

It’s a sunny Baltic afternoon and I’m sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tallinn, the booming capital of happily re-independent Estonia, chatting to the republic’s best known, and doubtless most gifted, identical twins. There’s Anu Tali, the 29-year-old conductor and rising star of the classical musical world, and her sister, best friend, manager, and creative partner, Kadri. The immediate subject of the conversation is the twins’ “baby”, the Estonian-Finnish Symphony Orchestra (EFSO), a high-minded, multipurpose, multinational symphony orchestra that the sisters founded in 1997.

After years of being one of the Northern European classical musical scene’s best-kept secrets, the EFSO is about to have its moment in the sun. Comprising 90 musicians from both Estonia and Finland, as well as the U.S., Russia and the U.K., the orchestra convenes four times a year in Estonia to perform Estonian, Finnish, and other classical music chosen by Anu, the orchestra’s artistic director. Now the orchestra is getting ready for its long-awaited international debut, and the EFSO released its first CD, Swan Flight, in November. Together, the two events are helping to put the EFSO-and the Tali Sisters, who are already celebrities in Estonia-on the international music map.

To help me understand the EFSO’s goals, Kadri, who is in charge of everything except the music, gives me a long list of the orchestra’s objectives. These include: bringing together professional musicians from around the world; inviting professional Estonian musicians working abroad back to Estonia; enlarging Estonian cultural life; introducing different cultures to the musicians; presenting the works of Estonian composers in performance; etc., etc.

The only thing missing from the list, I venture, is the conquest of disease and starvation.

“You can put that in there, too” says Kadri with a laugh.

What strikes me most about the sisters-in addition to their beauty and intelligence-is their utter seriousness.

“We have to be serious,” says Kadri, who does most of the talking. “Setting up an orchestra like this is very serious business. Do you know what it’s like to bring in 90 musicians from all over the world four times a year, arrange for transportation, housing, food, and everything else needed to keep them happy for five days? It’s like putting on a circus. Madness!”

“I agree,” says Anu as her sister pulls out her cell phone for the seventh time and takes a call. “If we had known how complicated it would be, we wouldn’t have done it.”

“Absolutely,” agrees Kadri. “We must have been mad. I guess you could say that we are mad-about music.”

In fact, both sisters have flourishing careers outside of EFSO. This is fortunate, since neither earns a kroon (the Estonian currency) from EFSO.

Anu is the more musically gifted of the two sisters, although Kadri also studied conducting before deciding that Anu was destined to be the family baton-wielder. Working professionally as an orchestra conductor since 1994, Anu has been employing her skills both with EFSO and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (ENSO), as well as the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the Vaasa (Finland) City Orchestra, the Liepaja (Latvia) Symphony Orchestra, and other regional orchestras.

While Anu makes a living conducting orchestra choirs, Kadri works as an artist agent at Eesti Konstert, the official Estonian classical music agency where she represents Estonian artists and orchestras internationally, while guiding and advising her twin sister on an unofficial basis, and managing EFSO.

While in Tallinn, I was fortunate to observe Anu’s talent and artistic fire at a concert of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. The performance took place in Tallinn’s venerable Concert Hall, erected in 1917, at the end of the first “Russian Period,” just a few years before Estonia became independent for the first time-before succumbing to the yet more repressive Stalinist regime in 1940.

Estonian history, as you may have gathered, is complicated, with overlapping Danish, Swedish, German, and Russian layers. The thing to remember, and marvel at, is that over the past 800 years this continuously repressed nation has enjoyed a mere 30 years of freedom, including the past ten.

This helps explain why the entire Estonian nation-particularly young Estonians like the Talis and their friends-seem to be in a mad dash to seize the day, while the day is theirs. The prospect of Estonia joining the EU, which is slated to take place in 2005, and which Estonians regard as the final step in returning to civilization after the Soviet years, has further charged the air. As in the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Lithuania, there is a gold rush going on in Estonia as both native and foreign investors and entrepreneurs build hotels, restaurants, and various businesses-even orchestras-and the Talis are definitely part of it.

Or as Michael Tarm, editor of the Tallinn-based English-language listings magazine City Paper puts it, “The Talis represent the best that Estonians can be.”

The first thing that struck me at Anu’s extraordinary performance-besides the reverent, near-capacity crowd-was the rather odd sight of this petite woman bobbing about in a tux.

Anu acknowledges that her sex, and her looks, sometimes works against her-at least at first glance. “Sometimes, especially when I am conducting an orchestra for the first time, I can feel and hear their skepticism,” she says. She recalls the skeptical reaction she drew when she was asked to conduct a 1998 Moscow master class in Tchaikovsky overseen by her mentor, the celebrated Finnish musical teacher Jorma Panula. “I could hear my fellow students make all these negative comments,” she says. “But I quieted them down soon enough,” she adds with a slight smile.

The Moscow master class was a milestone for Anu, perhaps the most persuasive evidence to her that she had indeed found her vocation.

The young conductor, one of but a handful of female symphony orchestra conductors in the world, admits that she is still apprehensive when she steps up to the podium. “After all, some of my musicians are professors of music,” she says, in awed tones, as we breakfast in the cozy alcove of the posh St. Petersburg Hotel in Tallinn.

But if Anu was nervous at the ENSO concert I attended, it certainly didn’t show. The young musical general confidently led her troops through Debussy’s “The Afternoon of the Faun,” Martinu’s moving “Rhapsody Concerto for Viola and Orchestra,” before finishing with a rousing rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

As we eat, Anu spells out her short kist of dos and don’ts for aspiring conductors. “One: respect your instrument-namely your orchestra. Two: don’t play favorites. Three: don’t bring your mood to the hall. Four,” she says firmly, “learn your music.”

To be sure, it is Anu’s and Kadri’s orchestra, “our orchestra,” as the sisters proudly term it, which they are keenest to discuss. And little wonder. For the EFSO is a singular achievement.

According to the sisters, the genesis for EFSO took place in 1997 when they decided to organize a concert employing both Finnish and Estonian music, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Finnish independence.

Anu and the Finnish talent Mikko Franck jointly conducted the resulting concert, in Tallinn, which combined a triumphant performance of “Kalavala Pictures,” Symphony No. 3 by Sibelius and “Swan Flight” by Veljo Tormis.

It was well received, and proved so much fun that the sisters decided to keep it going.

And, quite amazingly-and to the evident and understandable awe of their peers-they have. Anu focuses on the musical side, spending her nights creating programs with imaginative themes, like “Human”, consisting of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at the Exhibition” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and “Love”- the greatest love stories in music-including Faure’s “Pelleas and Melisande” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which were both performed as part the orchestra’s 1999-2000 concert season.

Meanwhile, Kadri tries to keep her sponsors happy, which she can tell you is no mean feat.
“I let Kadri take care of all that stuff,” says Anu, referring to EFSO’s finances, as Kadri answers yet another cell-phone call with a theatrical frown as we all sit in the classical-music-filled confines of Esli-Tall, an old gabled house turned restaurant in Tallinn’s Old Town.

Once the circus is in town, as Kadri puts it, it is her job to keep everyone happy, which isn’t easy, given all the egos and nationalities involved. “I like that part,” says Kadri, earnestly. “I like giving musicians the opportunity to do what they can do.”

Including your sister?

“Including my sister,” she responds brightly, and they both laugh.

And how far do they intend to take the new-fangled Estonian Finnish Symphony Orchestra?

“As far as it takes us,” says Kadri, soberly. “To Russia, maybe to London, but right now,” she says, with a mischievous glint, referring to EFSO’s anticipated rendezvous across the Baltic, “we are very happy to conquer Finland.”

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