Interview with Heather MacLaughlin Garbes


With the concert “A Distant Land” / “Kauge maa” on 13 January we celebrate the 102nd birthday of composer Ester Mägi together with musicians from the other side of the globe. The Mägi Ensemble is a professional SA vocal ensemble that specializes in music from the Baltic region of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Their aim is to perform and record music from these countries and promote new choral works from Baltic women composers.

Interview with the conductor of the Mägi Ensemble Heather MacLaughlin Garbes

Where did your relationship with Estonian music begin, and can you describe what does it mean to you or what does it represent?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Washington, they were just developing a Baltic Choral Music collection and I was the gradaute student that was chosen to work on this project. As I listened to the recordings and looked at the notes, I became more and more interested in the music and the tradition that is came from. For me, there is deep meaning to many of the Estonian songs that goes beyond just the text that is on the page and the relationship of that deep meaning with how the composer interprets it is what continues to interest me in Estonian music.

Do you have any piece by Arvo Pärt that has a special meaning for you? 

I’m sad that Pärt only wrote two pieces for treble choir! I would love to explore more of them and have the Mägi Ensemble study them. When I sit and think about it, Für Anna Maria s one of my favorite Pärt pieces. The longing suspensions of time are amazing and it brings a lump to my throat almost instantly. To take the time to breathe and appreciate the silence as much as the sound in a composition has a huge efffect on me.

Can you describe, what is it that fascinates you about Estonian language or how do you perceive it in music/singing?

The Estonian language is so wonderful to sing because of all of the vowels, but it is also a challenge because of all of the vowels! We have many discussions about how to sing two vowels on a sustained long note and continue to ask Estonian speakers regularly about how they think we should sing it and we continue to get many different answers! There is also a cadence and phrasing to the Estonian language when it is spoken that I am continually learning more about each year.

How do you feel the audiences in the U.S react to Mägi Ensemble’s specific niche? D you perform similar programs also around U.S, how does the audience take it?

We are definitely a specific niche and it is sometimes hard to get people to attend our concerts initially because they don’t know what style the music will be. Many choirs in Seattle sing Renaissance and Classical repertoire and some also pair Renaissance with Contemporary pieces, so we are quite unusual in that way. There is an interest in Baltic composers for many of the choirs in Seattle and they will sing 1-2 songs, but we are the only ensemble that sings an all-Baltic program exclusively. Once audiences hear us, then they want to come to our future concerts, but it is getting them to their first performance that is our goal!

What is your personal most special experience connected to Estonia?

My times spent with Ester Mägi hold a huge place in my heart, but I have also met so many wonderful people throughout my time visiting here and they have been so helpful with sharing their stories and experiences as well as inviting me to experience special events. I also have fond memories of each of the times the Mägi Ensemble has come to Estonia with watching the singers learn more about the history and traditions through experiencing them.

You have been coming here for more than 20 years already. How or what have you noticed has changed during this period?

So much has changed! I am very thankful that I was able to come back in the early 2000s to experience that time of change and development. There are so many new and exciting neighborhoods, the food/restaurant scene is amazing and the reuse of the old buildings into fun bookstores, coffee shops and performance spaces is inspiring.

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