TALLINN - The undoubted highlight of the Estonian cultural calendar - the Song Festival - will begin July 2. The festival, which is held every five years, is widely considered to be the most unique expression of Estonia folk culture and is a huge draw among locals and tourists alike for its rousing singalong spirit.
But just in case you didn't notice that something big was in town, just take a look around and you'll see even more people in folk costumes than usual, in a city that has more folk costumes per capita than any other city in the world.
This year, the song program and the dance program have been separated into different events. There will be three dance performances and two song performances. But either way, there will be plenty of events to satisfy even the most ardent folk lover.
The Song Festival came about in the second half of the 19th century, a period also commonly known as the time of national awakening. Estonians realized they could start gaining some political leverage in the Russian empire through the development, celebration and recognition of their own cultural heritage.
The first Song Festival was held in Tartu in 1869, and although initially it was held with varying regularity, it eventually fell into the pattern of being held every five years. The last one was in 1999.
In November 2003 UNESCO accepted the joint bid of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to have their respective song and dance festival tradition officially recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, a vast open-air concert area with a big stage covered with a shell-like roof to create better acoustics, is usually fully used only during the festival. The stage alone can accommodate 24,000 people. In September 1988, at the peak of the independence movement, some 300,000 people reportedly gathered at the Song Festival Grounds for a demonstration.
According to Aet Maatee from the organizing committee of the festival, 21,325 singers, mostly from mixed and children's choirs, will participate in this year's festival. The largest joint choir of 19,000 singers, which may well be contender for the largest in the world, will perform on July 3. Together with the musicians and other participants, some 24,000 people will perform at the July 3 and 4 concerts.
This time 796 choirs and 51 orchestras earned the right to participate in this festival.
The participant list includes famous Estonian conductors Eri Klas, Neeme Jarvi and Paavo Jarvi, along with respected representatives of the younger generation such as Hirvo Surva, Olari Elts and Arne Saluveer.
There will be about 400 folk dance groups, some of them from the Estonian communities abroad and several from Latvia. Furthermore, some 20,000 of the festival's participants also took part in the huge project of planting 1 million trees in May in a much-publicized project to make Estonia greener.
As for the event itself, be sure not to miss the the spectacular parade of the Song and Dance Festival participants marching from Vabaduse Square to the Song Festival Grounds on July 3. It's a truly unforgettable experience. However, it dramatically jams the city center traffic.
The July 3 program will also feature some of the classics of choral music. The day will end with the triumphal choir from Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" conducted by Eri Klas. But good ol' Estonian folk music will dominate the program throughout July 4.
For a warm-up event, don't miss the Folk Music Day, a free concert at Town Hall Square in the Old Town on July 1. The organizers have promised to bring some 33,000 singers and dancers. Hopefully the beer gardens won't get too greedy at the sight of so many people and start double their prices. o
24th Song Festival
and 17th Dance Festival
July 2 to 4, Tallinn, Song Festival Grounds and the Kalev Stadium
Tickets 80 kroons
(5 euros) to 120 kroons
For more info visit www.laulupidu.ee