Pärnu Kontserdimaja, Aida 4, 80011 Pärnu, Estonia

Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

Arriving in Tallinn you’re struck by order and unruffled calm. Given that the Russian border at Narva is only one-hundred-and-thirty miles east, there is, true, a certain wariness these days. But life perseveres, elegance is the order, social manners count, cultural values matter. People are confident, sure of their identity and historical friendships. Flags – Estonian, Ukrainian, EU – flutter, neatly more than garishly. Eighty miles south, along the road to Riga – a road of fields and forests, the trees bent and shaped before the prevailing winds – you arrive in Pärnu with its spas and pale beaches, Estonia’s fourth largest city. Handsome to behold. It can get cold here. Last winter, I was told, the snows came in November and didn’t melt until March. Deep into the hinterland you might meet with grey wolves, lynx or brown bears. This visit I saw none. Just storks, mares and foals an hour or so old. Despite twilight lingering well after ten o’clock, the evenings proved chillier than expected, the nights disrupted by the thunder of jousting gods. But the days were warm, sunlight and shadows latticing an abundance of verdant spaces. Down quiet wide roads washed by rain one glimpsed nestling houses and villas, many of characteristically timbered design. Older, grander buildings, finely built and ornamented, some vibrantly coloured, imposed a different presence. Who’d once lived in them I wondered. Secreted away cafes, rough tables and awnings perched between cobbles and grass, invitingly tempted one within, if only for the local craft beers and a platter of cheese.

During the Khruschev/Kosygin/Brezhnev years David Oistrakh used to spend his summers in Pärnu, renting a dacha in Toominga Street. These days it’s a neglected faded-green weather-board place of steep gabled roof, famous secrets, and an overgrown garden, one of sixteen planned in the early thirties by Pärnu’s city architect Olev Siinmaa. Among the many, Shostakovich would visit. Paying homage, I found myself on a time-ticket back to 1967. Did Oistrakh ponder and practice the great man’s new C-sharp minor Concerto here? Probably, one way or another, he did – for a try-out in Bolshevo come the early September of that year. In England, fifteen-hundred miles west, my piano to hand in a low white weather-board cottage among the woodlands of East Sussex, I was an undergraduate in my portfolio year, a greenhorn apprentice writing for Music & Musicians. Managing to get hold of the score, I analysed it avidly, penning at least one article. Then, November 19, I reviewed the Western premiere – at the Royal Festival Hall, Ormandy conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, Oistrakh’s imperiousness all-consuming. Fifty-five years ago. BBC Legends BBCL 4267-2. Some things you don’t forget.

A rough-tooled plaque marks the site. Another, marbled, the Passion Cafe, Hospidali 14. This tells that “The ‘Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia’ was printed in February 23, 1918, in Aleksander Jürvetson’s printing house located in this building. This document, compiled on February 21 by the Council of Elders of [t]he Estonian National Council, was printed by the order of August Jürmann, the chairman of the Pärnu County Committee of the Estonian Rural People’s Union. The Republic of Estonia was declared by distributing and publicly reading out the text of the Manifesto on the 23rd of February in Pärnu and on the 24th of February in Tori and Viljandi”. The Passion Cafe, atmospheric and generous but, street terrace notwithstanding, impossibly small to accommodate the crowds that gather, is where the musicians of the Festival bustle and congregate. Estonian, Russian, English, all languages. There’s Florian Donderer in the corner, Stefan Dohr holding relaxed court, Joshua Bell strolling by. Neeme Järvi, eighty-five, jowelled and imposing, Liilia at his side, chattering, stops to listen, surrounded by family – Paavo, Kristjan, Maarika – and doting grandchildren. No airs or graces. Twenty-first century Pärnu and the Järvi dynasty walk hand in hand.

The Pärnu Concert Hall is the Music Festival’s home. With its glass façade, organ, and invitingly resonant acoustic, flattering all frequencies – cellos and basses vibrate, violas hum, brasses brighten and carry – this was inaugurated in 2002. Seating just shy of 900, it brings listeners and players into enlighteningly physical proximity. Contrasting many venues, the young duty staff reflect disciplined grooming, their poise exuding tangible equanimity and goodwill. Relaxing in embrace and welcome, a civilised coffee to be had in the foyer, it’s somewhere you want to go to.

A far-sighted vision, now in its twelfth season, structured around high-profile, multi-choice, world-class concerts, innovative planning, conducting masterclasses and individual tuition, the Pärnu Music Festival is the pride of Estonia. Neeme, wearing a discreet Ukrainian ribbon (the fashion politic of many of the players) and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, twenty strong, launched this year’s proceedings. An eighty-fifth birthday celebration with a difference (13th). Not the big Estonian, Russian, Soviet or Scandinavian repertory he’s been associated with, but, rather, a delicately balanced string programme of late-Mozart, vintage Gluck and young Dvořák. Here before us was a grandee from another era, born in Tallinn before the Second World War, Soviet-trained under Mravinsky and Rabinovich in Leningrad, embodiment of a conducting legacy stretching back to Malko and the Tsarist Romantics. Lovro von Matačić of distant memory lurks in his stance.

A tonmeister student of mine in the mid-eighties, during Neeme’s tenure with the (then) Scottish National Orchestra, edited several of his Chandos recordings during her industrial year. She’d return from sessions adoring the man but lamenting that editing his work was hard since no take was ever the same, his way of making music being a living, evolving, fluctuating process. What came across in this concert was a sense of narrative, here energised, there reflective. He took time to breathe, shaping and elongating phrase endings with emotional care. Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik – a throwaway with most people – was variously joyous, profound and touching, a whole parade of operatic characters passing before us, here in the foreground, there dissolved into a timeless backcloth.

Much the same applied to the Slavonic climate of Dvořák’s E-major Serenade Opus 22, lyric song, measured pathos and the lightest, briskest of dance-steps indulged with beauty and tenderness. Violins and violas were fireside warm, the latter eloquently, nostalgically, drawn out of the texture. When cellos and basses (3+2, right of platform) dug deep, you felt it in your bones. A willingness to broaden tempo (the Poco meno mosso of the second movement, for instance) found its most controversial expression in the Larghetto at 6:10 – not, true, without precedent (Prague Chamber Orchestra, 5:40) but markedly slower than, say, Talich (Czech Philharmonic, 4:30) or Kubelík (English Chamber Orchestra, 5:00). The liberation disquietened some in the audience while releasing tears in others. Neeme’s flautist daughter, Maarika, delivered a conception of Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ (Orfeo ed Euridice) as near impeccably timed and articulated as I’ve heard, the purity of her tone and minimal vibrato ringing bell-like. Her encore, Fauré’s Morceau de concours, was perhaps even more distinguished.

As much as the rest of his clan, Neeme likes encores. He gave us three. A transcription of the youthful 1928 piano Prelude in B-flat minor by his late friend Eduard Tubin, ETW 30/1. The first movement, ‘A richly done Csárdás’, from Leó Weiner’s pre-war Divertimento Opus 20 – pliable/active/still body language alert to each Hungarian nuance, accent and dynamic, pulsating life in every flicker of the eye or wrist. And Sibelius’s Andante festivo (minus timpani), the sweep of the paragraphs lined and flowing, the totality bardic, tensioned, burgeoningly epic. He and his ensemble can play this epithalamium in their sleep. But sleep they never did. Bouquets of standing ovation. An old friend from the young-blood USSR days, Viktoria Postnikova, midst the throng. https://parnumusicfestival.tv/landing/bc/6N4D5tk8A_/-qwjQ4XNB2U

The following evening’s Järvi Academy Gala – featuring teachers and participants of the Festival’s educational initiative, together with members of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, led by Evgenia Pavlova, charismatically pirouetting the tuning call – contrasted Estonian chamber music with young conductors swimming tricky waters in Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók. Kärt Ruubel (twin sister of Triin Ruubel, co-leader of the Estonian Festival Orchestra) administers Pärnu’s conducting masterclasses. I know her to be a discerning pianist and devoted modernist but was unprepared for the brilliance she demonstrated in Jaan Rääts’s compellingly structured Piece without Title No.5, Opus 122 (2003), partnering the French violinist Nicolas Dautricourt. This was a gripping performance, within the first twenty seconds of precision attack running the gamut from loud to soft echo to crescendo to percussive bass chords to rippling backcloth for the violin entry. The Estonian Music Information Centre describe Tõnu Kõrvits as a writer of “poetic and visionary music, hypnotic journeys through the landscapes of nature and folk tradition, human soul and [the] subconscious”. Dreamers, in the 2007 ur-version for oboe and violin, left a lasting impression, strands of ideas and images, of bird calls near Housman-English in places, circling with a touch of spatial movement at the end. Exquisitely chiselled, it would make a luxuriant Bach reed-and-fiddle encore (Gregor Witt/Dejan Bogdanovich). Hillar Kareva’s tripartite Concert Piece for Trumpet and Piano, Opus 11/2 (1969) might serve similarly for Shostakovich’s First Concerto (Fábio Brum, Meeli Otts). Affectingly cohesive. Erkki-Sven Tüür’s double-movement String Quartet in memoriam Urmas  Kibuspuu (1985) travels roads he’s made his own over the past forty years: “energetic transformative dimensions, high-tension sound fields, spectacular rhetorics, intense rhythmics”. He’s a man who thinks big (his Tenth Symphony for four horns and orchestra was premiered in Germany last May) but concentrates tight. This focussed Quartet – written in memory of the Estonian actor Urmas Kibuspuu who died at thirty-one from a brain tumour and is buried in Tallinn’s medievally inspired Forest Cemetery – commanded, challenged and convinced (Eva-Christina Schönweiss, Hans Christian Aavik, Mikhail Zemtsov, Marko Ylönen).

The Järvi conducting trinity, jointly with the Ukrainian-American Leonid Grin, are hands-on when it comes to the Academy’s aspiring conductors, many of whom return on a regular basis. Two left their musical mark in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. Aivis Greters (Latvia) – who earlier this year won the Jury Award at the Tonhalle-Orchester’s Conductors Academy initiated by Paavo, and is about to head to Gothenburg Opera and, as Mäkelä’s assistant, the Orchestre de Paris. And Aleksandra Melaniuk (Poland), whose quiet sensitivity and elegant phrasing elevated the ‘Forlane’. Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks had its moments but whatever fire there might have been seemed too often dampened by a hard-working concern to get things right. Kasper Joel Nõgene (Estonia), at fifteen the Academy’s youngest participant, predictably made headlines. I couldn’t be sure if some of the remarkable solos and dynamic shadings in Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances were at his instigation or a gratuity from the BSP principals. Whatever, they came over tellingly within a metrically contained overview.  https://parnumusicfestival.tv/landing/bc/6N4D5tk8A_/rHzrwD4zX0T

Nordic Amazonia, a spectacular 105-minute Baltic Sea Philharmonic inter-disciplinary immersion “performed in a free order without intermission”, marking Kristjan’s fiftieth-birthday (June) and Philip Glass’s eighty-fifth (January), was a glory occasion to behold (15th). “Creating environments connecting different hemispheres of the brain,” Kristjan is the ebullient, multi-crossover, risk-taking ‘wild’ boy of the pack, rampantly doing his own thing. From baroque to New Age to minimalism, classical aesthetic to “walls of sound”, northern myth to exotica, acoustic to electronic, concert balancing to amplification to radical studio mixes, arching lyricism to gyrating rhythmic repetitions, imagery to choreography to lighting, dream fantasy to raw, pulverising 4/4 physicality … it’s all part of his high-octane being. In the sixties he’d have been a love-and-peace hippy. Love and trust, creating magic, connections between people and soul-states come often into his conversation.

Talking with him the day after, his gentleness contrasting his striding muscular image, he has a lot to say. “The Baltic Sea Philharmonic has a collective brain. It’s not one crazy thinking up all this stuff and other crazies gravitating around him. We intermix, everyone has the capacity, and is allowed, to make additions to the house. One builds his own terrace. The other adds a skylight. The third colours her room … purple … We’re tied together by an aesthetic – a certain type of sound, an intention that we want to communicate with our audience. But you have to communicate amongst yourselves first. It’s an infectious ritual. Masquerading as an orchestra, using the substance, the medium of music, we’re basically a vehicle for a conscious consciousness shift. Our goal is to get people to realize that we live so far on the other side of fear that we’ve kind of broken through the barrier of safe and forgotten what fear is. The only way we can share is through our heart. The heart is infinite. It’s full of giving. It’s not judgmental. A real energy field is created between the players when they let go of their fears. You give your generosity, your sincerity, your trust to someone else in the collective. The collective builds itself. There’s no hierarchy. Instead of one conductor you have fifty, not one leader but many. We play understanding that a piece is held together by harmony, rhythm and all of those things needed to be able to surf freely. Bach is our father. With that awareness you can’t ruin the structure. But you have space to add tasteful elements of atmosphere and co-creation. It either fits or it doesn’t. We’re not gangsters walking around the orchestra graffiting the place, we have people all wanting to create beautiful moments – improvising, colouring, mindful of themselves, mindful of others.

“Until I got into the Manhattan School of Music [a rigorously selective institution] I was undecided to be a musician. I was interested in other fields. Astronomy, physics, international relations, people mixing. If music, then something perhaps on the production side, as a sound engineer or record producer. Once in Manhattan, I continued as a pianist. I met composers like Gene Pritsker and Charles Coleman, along with a bunch of other people who are still very good friends of mine.  They were writing, you know, for cello, oboe, clarinet, and rapper … I was thinking, whoa, this is pretty bizarre, but it’s actually kind of cool. And, because it was like bar music, it was a case of who do we have available rather than what I want to conduct. Out of this experimentation period grew the Absolute Ensemble [New York 1993] basically connected more by philosophy than capability. We had people who read a lot and were great improvisers, others who were great arrangers, each with their own take. We didn’t really know what we were doing. What we knew was that we wanted to do something that was all inclusive, that was more like a community, a great hang between friends where we could just create and have fun. Freedom. The philosophy we shared, through its twists and turns, my own development since, has led me to where I am now. Redefining mindsets.

“We’re here only for a certain amount of time. If you don’t take risks, you’ve not lived to the fullest capacity of what you can be. I’m a completely believer that we’re like the seasons. The place stays the same, but the seasons change. We need to go through enough of those seasons before we can elevate to the next dimensional plane. Singularity with the universe. The metaverse which connects us all.”

Nordic Amazonia – more than five years in gestation – is an amalgam of two of Kristjan’s earlier CD albums: Nordic Escapes (Nordic Pulse Ensemble, LSO, Baltic Sea Philharmonic, 2020, Modern Recordings/BMG 538615902), and Charles Coleman’s orchestration of Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia, Waters of the Amazon (MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Absolute Ensemble, 2017, Orange Mountain Music omm0115), the latter based on Uakti’s “one-of-a-kind instrument” 1993 recording released in 1999 (Point Music 464 064-2). Kristjan premiered Coleman’s arrangement, a brilliantly skilled affair, in Leipzig in 2016, a chamber conception appearing the following year in Houston conducted by his then assistant, Marlon Chen (Sydney Boyd’s Houstonia review, 11 September 2017 https://www.houstoniamag.com/arts-and-culture/2017/09/aguas-da-amazonia-philip-glass-houston).

The set melled seamlessly, Kristjan’s own contributions emerging out of preparatory minimalist tones and a superimposed soundtrack of dripping rain forests and tropical thunder. Darkness, dappled lighting, coloured platform spots, theatre mist. Crouching, rising, moving players. Visceral body language and facial communication, mood and characterisation in every gesture. David Nebel floats ‘Nebula’ and ‘Aurora’, sharing in spirit and commitment. Evgenia glides and sways, nuanced by everything around and within her – if not a violinist she’d have been a dancer, she says. In the midst of it all, moving among the musicians, from one group to another, drinking in each riff, phrase and perfume, sometimes lost to sight, no baton just caressing hands … Kristjan. Brilliant, hot trumpet solos, brazen and jazzy, liquid flutes, ethnic nasality. A percussion section living out the grooves, imparting unanimously – deep drum tones penetrating root-like, higher chains of register crowding scene and senses like stars blazing the night watch. The quieter numbers induce meditation. What secrets does ‘Purus’ hold, what lurks within ‘Rio Negro? The more forceful ones – ‘Metamorphosis I’, ‘Amazon’ – invoke fertility rites, ecstatic in their spirals and mounting delirium. Sufi dervish dancing (“the human being has been created with love in order to love”), the stamping tribal dances of the Americas, hooves pawing the ground (for years part of Kristjan’s concert arsenal), spring to mind. The show reaches a tumultuous encore climax, but not before David joins in ravishingly and lazy trombone glissandos prepare the way. Dramatically removed from the CD original in volatility, enhanced embellishment and decibels, the final long accelerating crescendo is a tour de force of virtuosity and abandonment yet control, everyone jamming with everyone else, Kristjan in over-drive, tactile with his musicians, then the audience, leading his band off down the central aisle, ‘Amazon’ flooding inexorably oceanwards. “In the end you’re a 100-percent part of me and I’m a 100-percent part of you. That’s not a figment of my imagination. That’s quantum physics.” What ramifications might this extravaganza, these artists, have at the Royal Albert Hall, Glastonbury even? https://parnumusicfestival.tv/landing/bc/6N4D5tk8A_/xR7fEF9XDE4

Shouldering four of the concerts at this year’s Festival, all with Paavo Järvi, the Estonian Festival Orchestra sets high standards. It was good to see Florian Donderer leading again, concertmaster of Järvi’s Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, with Triin Ruubel adding her usual loyal positivity to the desk. And to have Thomas Ruge, a founder member of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, leading the cellos (as well as, like Donderer, stiffening the side in Academy events). Maarika Järvi was there among the flutes. Missing, though, was Matthew Hunt from the clarinets.

Coinciding with Alpha Classics’ release of his latest album, Estonian Premieres, a compilation of earlier EFO Pärnu performances (2012-21, Alpha 863), Paavo’s programme (16th) opened with a powerful, grave reading of Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre in memory of Bartók, the subterranean depth and power of the strings confirming the quality and interaction of the section. Ruge’s closing solo diminuendo was remarkable, Paavo insistent in rehearsals that his body language should be absolutely still, giving nothing away. The last E was barely audible, yet sufficient enough to confirm anchorage however shrouded. Stefan Dohr, principal horn of the Berliner Philharmoniker (he had a go conducting at the Academy two years ago), made the most of Richard Strauss’s wartime Second Horn Concerto, some pages better in rehearsal, the retrospective lyrical passages always poetic. The complexity and effects of Messiaen’s Appel interstellaire, a favourite encore of his, awed the room. A masterclass for young players.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was splendidly judged, neither over-dramatised nor sentimental, grandly weighted in all departments. Familiar notes, harmonies and melodies maybe but given renewed freshness and vitality, no one among the ranks willing to slacken. Paavo knows these pages intimately, yet still works from the score, breathing and mouthing the phrases. Getting to the core of the piece, supporting his players, signifies, not ego. From early on to an electrifying attack at the start of the Finale’s Allegro, Maarja Nuut impressed with the musicality of her timpani playing. In the slow movement, mighty in its basaltic climaxes and soaring intensity, Alec Frank-Gemmill (principal horn of the Gothenburg Symphony) spun a golden sunset with his solo, Aleksey Mikhaylenko sighing away its last clarinet rays come the close. Sheer poetry. As concert performances go, a touch brisker than Paavo’s recent Tonhalle recording, this was a Fifth pretty much as great as you can get, a modern reply to Mravinsky and Svetlanov, the orchestra sensing – knowingly, smilingly – that it was in the middle of something special. Electrifying. Pleasing the audience, the second of a pair of encores, Alfven’s Shepherd-Girl’s Dance, tumbled with mischief and a glint in the eye. But it was the first, the Act III Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, that torched the imagination, Paavo, catching its rise and fall with elan and a caesura or two, reminding, reinforcing, that such dance is born vitally of these lands and frosts and passions between Warsaw and Petersburg. https://parnumusicfestival.tv/landing/bc/6N4D5tk8A_/WdbN4NWv1Az

Pärnu 2020


Pärnu 2021


Paavo Järvi’s Tchaikovsky Symphonies