Song remains the same

Rating: NNNNNI'm pacing back and forth in front of Roy Thomson Hall on a balmy summer day, waiting for my.

Rating: NNNNN

I’m pacing back and forth in front of Roy Thomson Hall on a balmy summer day, waiting for my family to arrive. Gathering socially is a special occasion for us. Here in Toronto there’s me, my sisters Karin and Tiina, brother Olav, his wife Tanja and my 87-year-old father.

Isa — that’s the Estonian word for father — doesn’t get out much any more. His life, like his body, has shrunk to encompass a small circle of activities that include the slow walk to the Morningside Mall to pick up odds and ends, visits to the doctor and twice-weekly saunas.

We take turns visiting him on weekends to do his shopping and laundry and tidy up. It’s a routine he’s comfortable with, one that doesn’t waver, and it rarely includes an afternoon attending an Estonian Song Festival.

Sing praises

Every four years, Estonians from around the world gather and this time around, the Estonian World Festival is being held in Toronto. The highlight of the week is the Song Festival.

You have to understand that we Estonians treat song festivals the way Canadians treat the NHL all-star game — it’s our opportunity to show off our national sport, choral singing. Believe me, I know that doesn’t sound exciting. As a child, I remember being dragged with my siblings to concerts, and actually having to perform in a few myself, and if you’ve heard me sing, you’d know that amounts to a declaration of war against music itself.

However, as an adult I can now appreciate the beauty of hundreds of voices — men, women and children — raised as one to sing the praises of my ancestral homeland, the place where I can trace my family tree back to the 17th century.

My sister Tiina arrives first, followed by the rest of the clan minutes later. Hundreds of other blond and silver-haired Estonians mingle outside. Isa’s wearing a light summer suit jacket I’ve never seen before. It amazes me how he manages to buy new clothes for himself without my noticing. He’s always been a slightly fastidious dresser, which I chalk up to the fact he was an eligible bachelor until the age of 44.

Choir costumes

We step inside, and I separate from the group. I’ve got a press seat for the concert and I’m seated so close I can see the stitching on the choir members’ costumes. I look way up and wave at my family in the upper balcony, wishing I was sitting with them. But I also know that I’m going to cry, something I’m embarrassed to do in front of them.

The concert begins with 17 choirs made up of 600 singers. They fill the hall. An aged man with a cane is helped onstage. Maestro Dr. Roman Toi, the festival’s honorary patron, begins to speak. He raises his fist in the air, his voice cracks, and my eyes tear up when he implores us never to forget who we are and where we come from.

At this moment I remember my other sister, who lives far away and isn’t with us, and of course my mother — the missing link in our family chain. She died six years ago, and I know she would have loved this. Oh, she would have berated us for what we’re wearing, commented on our shoes or haircuts — she would have hated my inch-long hair. And while she would have driven us all crazy with her quiet sighs of disapproval, her heart would have burst with pride that we were together — not because she forced us but because it was what we wanted.

ingridr@nowtoronto.comSong remains the same

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