Stephen Bell: Kojuigatsus – longing for home

“Longing for home” is a phrase that resonates in North America, where everyone—immigrant or aboriginal—is in some sense displaced.  As a child born in Canada of Hungarian parents I am in a funny place, loyal to the old country of my forebears, but 100% committed to Canada.  I have read about the 1956 uprising, and feel a special connection to Hungarian culture (Franz Liszt, George Faludy, Béla Tarr…).  In the global melting pot, culture is one way we discover who we are supposed to be, whether in the appropriation of a pretty tune, or in a sudden rush of recognition. Who am i exactly?  I felt very comfortable listening to what i thought of as an Eastern-European folk tune in Smetana’s Moldau (the most famous movement from Ma Vlast), deconstructed nicely for me by my Mom who told me that no, it’s actually a Swedish folk-song.  Such details are unimportant though, as i could connect to the melody either way.

So much for nostalgia.

Tenor Stephen Bell

I have been listening to tenor Stephen Bell’s CD Kojuigatsus – longing for home a CD suggestive of these tensions, dramas, perplexities.  Recording in February 2013 at the Estonian House in Toronto, the CD presents thirteen songs sung by Bell with pianist Charles Kipper. 

Like so many of us Bell has a dual identity, having been born in Vancouver, but spoken of on the CD as a “Canadian and Estonian tenor”, a duality captured wonderfully on the jacket photo of the Toronto skyline, and the texts of the songs in both Estonian and an English translation.  I have no idea whether Bell can speak Estonian (accented or otherwise), but his pronunciation of the songs sounds persuasive.

Each of the countries of Europe has a culture, painters & poets & composers.  That they don’t always attract the attention of critics outside their own country does not negate their importance, especially in the specifically nationalist discourse of a country discovering its unique voice & identity.

With the help of Kojuigatsus I’ve made the first tentative step towards acquainting myself with the music of Estonia, particularly the compositions of Saar (five of the songs) and Tammeveski (three more).  The music is attractively lyrical, although a musicologist might observe that the music is tuneful yet derivative: which is another way of saying that the songs are a happy throwback to a time when music was expected to be beautiful.  In some circles that may be a weakness, but one could do a lot worse.

Kipper’s piano is strong and full, with a tone redolent of nostalgia; but that’s only fitting considering, as Kipper supports Bell throughout.

Click the CD image for info on how to obtain

Bell’s recital takes you on a trip to another place and time, as though recalling a far-off country and a way of seeing life.  The first and last songs are especially reticent, but most of the sentiments are gentle and poetic, never coarse or blatant.  In every song Bell’s voice soars comfortably above the murmuring piano accompaniments.  At times he sounds effete, perhaps as thoughtful as the poet who wrote the words he sings.

Kojuigatsus – longing for home is like a photo album, a series of snapshots of a place we might otherwise never know.  I’m thankful that although Bell takes us on this journey, he’s still here in Canada. 

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3 Responses to Stephen Bell: Kojuigatsus – longing for home

  1. John Mills-Cockell says:

    Hi Leslie,

    It was a pleasure to read your comments about Stephen Bell. What I’ve heard so far is terrific and I look forward to a good listen. It deserves mention that Arvo Prt is Estonian and his music reflects something of his heritage, or so I imagine from the little I know of it (the mother of my son is an Estonian refugee). Recently I attended performances of 3 great choral works of Prt given by Vox Humana in Victoria BC, under direction of Brian Wismath.

    I wanted to bring you up to date on Savitri & Sam, the opera Ken Gass & I have been developing. I’ve been in Toronto for the past 8 or 9 days working with Ken auditioning singers for the cast of our upcoming 2nd workshop. Also, I’m very excited that all this week I’m in Grant Ave Studio, Hamilton, recording the music of Savitri & Sam to which we will add vocals in the fall. So I can say that we are now well into the next phase of bringing the piece to production.

    Once again let me say that receiving & reading your blogs is an ongoing pleasure. Thank you so much, yours sincerely,


  2. barczablog says:

    Thanks for the update on Savitri & Sam, very eager to hear what you and Ken have to say.

    I’m not sure that i really articulated (properly) what i was hoping to say with respect to the compositions on the CD. While they’re not cutting edge, not dissonant, the music is beautiful. Estonian music seems to be a very deep and complex culture, including choral & vocal components: all in that one tiny country. It’s the same wherever you go in Europe, and so i believe we need to tread carefully, particularly those who’d attempt comments that in any way disrespect those complexities. But I think you get this very clearly as a composer who breaks the usual categories.

    Cheers and please keep us updated…!

  3. Pingback: Bogdanowicz & Ramirez: a common language | barczablog

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