WATERLOO — Symphony conductor Norman Reintamm was in Estonia in 1991, the night Soviet tanks rolled into the city of Tallinn. His only thought was, "are we going to be a free Estonia or are we going to be shipped to Siberia?"
Reintamm, now a member of the Canadian-based Trio Estonia which performs in Waterloo Friday, lived through the tumultuous time in Estonia under Soviet rule. He reflects on it as an enriching part of his life both musically and socially. And luckily, when he awoke the next morning, the tanks were gone and Estonia was finally independent.
Reintamm's parents came to Canada from Estonia after the Second World War, raising their family in Hamilton, where he began his musical career as a chorister at Christ's Church Cathedral. He completed an undergraduate degree in music from the University of Toronto and McMaster University. He then went on to postgraduate work at the Royal College of Music in London, England, followed by awards and apprenticeships with the Vancouver Chamber Choir and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
It would have been a giant leap for the young Canadian to launch his professional career in Estonia where he would be faced with great deprivation and even danger. Reintamm's father had suggested he audition for the Estonian National Opera, thinking his son would have more opportunities to gain experience. But it would also open the young man's eye to the privilege life he had grown up in.
"From a personal perspective, it was absolutely the right thing to do," he said. "In North America, we have a very good life. When a 28-year-old young adult goes to that kind of (communist) society, you appreciate what you have here. We really do have a wondrous life here."
Eyes wide open, Reintamm was excited by the 120- to 130-member orchestra he would be joining. "When I first came to the opera house, it was because of the size of the orchestra," he said. "The Soviets had invested in arts and culture."
Within a few years, he became senior resident conductor and head of the opera department at the Estonian Academy of Music while just outside the opera house doors, society was churning with dissatisfaction. Estonia's four-year fight for freedom from the Soviets became known as the Singing Revolution, when the people used music to inspire solidarity by holding mass night singing demonstrations.
"Estonia took that music and used it in a sly way the Soviets didn't understand," he said. If the Soviets dictated the people sing a song celebrating Soviet rule, they would use text understood only by Estonians, a type of secret code using references taken from myths and culture.
"It was a very odd situation," said Reintamm of his 11 years in Estonia, which included a stint as an opera coach and conductor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. "Obviously, being from the west I had to keep my nose clean." He was, however, able to introduce some music from the west, but it had to be done "very quietly, very surreptitiously."
Such flouting in the face of Soviet authority was dangerous. He knew he was often followed but the risks were worthwhile. "I really felt proud I had established a little change in my little way," he said.
Before that fateful night when the tanks rolled into the city, Reintamm had lived through standing in bread lines hoping to buy what limited food was available. He couldn't even send a fax at the opera house where he worked without first enlisting permission from a KBG agent. It was a surreal way to live.
"After I saw Lenin's statue pulled down, I called my dad (in Canada)," he said. "He was in tears." The country was finally independent. Reintamm was no longer restricted musically. But then another crisis arose. "My father became ill," he said. "He was 83 or 84." Reintamm returned to Canada and within six months, his father passed away. Back on his home turf and with more than a decade of impressive experience behind him, Reintamm had no trouble finding meaningful work.
Today he performs as a concert pianist, member of the Trio Estonia and principal conductor/artistic director of the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra in Scarborough. He has also guest conducted across Canada and Europe, played recitals and his choral compositions are often performed.
His goal now is to introduce Estonian music to Canadians, beyond well-known composers such as Arvo Pärt. "There are so many genres of Estonia music available to us that we didn't know about," he said. "I want to let people know about this kind of music."
Yesterday's concert is the final in a six-concert Ontario tour and will feature classics such as Beethoven, as well as contemporary Estonia composers, including Part and Erikki-Sven Tüür as well as tango king Astor Piazzolla, a particular favourite among Finns and Estonians.