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Estonia's David Oistrakh Festival Can Stand With Any in the World

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Aug 5, 2008 - 10:48:44 AM in reviews_2008


Neeme Järvi at St. George Memorial Church for the Estonian Soldiers, Tori, Estonia
Pärnu’s 38-year-old David Oistrakh Festival, revived in 1998 after a period of dormancy following Estonian re-independence (1991), is still a sapling reaching toward the sky.
   The potential to become a prime destination among the music festivals of the world is very great.  As a foreign journalist visiting Pärnu since 2003, I have witnessed and written about musical events of the highest caliber.  I have discovered artists new to me and admired the lofty musical ideals to which the leadership under cellist/artistic director Allar Kaasik aspires.
Cellist Allar Kaasik, Artis Director, David Oistrakh Festival

   The just concluded festival, July 18-29, was a case in point.  With 13 concerts in 12 days, from large choral-orchestral works to chamber music, the 2008 edition, though constrained as usual by funding, celebrated the 100th birthday of the legendary Russian violinist handsomely.
  Oistrakh, who spent his summers in Pärnu for a quarter-century, planted the seed for the festival, which began as “Beethoven Music Days” in 1970 and was later named in his honor.  The cottage where Oistrakh lived on Toominga Street – soft green with green apple trees in the yard -- bears a wooden plaque in his memory.
David Oistrakh house, Pärnu, Estonia
Guests at this year’s festival heard a cornucopia of well-chosen music.  A major theme was Johannes Brahms, not just in recognition of Brahms’ 175th birthday, but because Oistrakh died while performing and conducting a Brahms festival in Amsterdam in1974.
   Another important thread was Estonian music, performed in honor of the 90th anniversary of Estonian independence.  The anniversaries of Giacomo Puccini (150), Anton Webern (125) and also Olivier Messiaen  and Eugen Kapp (both 100) were recognized with performances of their music.
   Conductor Neeme Järvi continued to be the artistic magnet for the festival.  Joining him this year was his son Paavo, who stands on his own among the world’s finest conductors.  Both are Estonian-born and split teaching duties at the Neeme Järvi Summer Academy, a week-long conducting master course held in conjunction with the festival since 2000.
left to right: Paavo Järvi, Holger Kaasik, Lehari Kaustel

Pärnu Concert Hall at twilight, Pärnu, Estonia
There were concerts in the comfortable and acoustically superior Pärnu Kontserdimaja (Concert Hall, built in 2002-03, in part to showcase the Oistrakh Festival), historic St. Elisabeth Church, Pärnu Town Hall and St. George Memorial Church for the Estonian Soldiers in the nearby village of Tori.
St. George Memorial Church of the Estonian Solders, Tori, Estonia
The all-Estonian program in Tori (July 25) was particularly memorable as it was performed in conjunction with the dedication of a black granite plaque by Archbishop Andres Poder of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in memory of “all the repressed musicians.”
    The new plaque honors those who suffered for their art under totalitarian regimes, from Nazi and Soviet labor camp victims to musicians like Neeme Järvi, who emigrated from Estonia in 1980 under threat of repression for programming music not approved by the Soviet authorities.  The plaque takes its place among the many already lining the walls of the church, lovingly restored (it was a World War II casualty) as a memorial to Estonia’s fallen soldiers.
   There was plenty of violin music this year, performed by a total of 11 guest artists.  A tragedy of the festival was inexplicable the absence of Oistrakh’s son Igor, who helped found the festival in his father’s memory.  His place was amply filled, however, by Russian virtuoso Viktor Tretjakov.
  Trejakov’s playing was a stunning revelation to this Western journalist, who has known him heretofore largely by name.  Tretjakov, a master violinist in the Oistrakh tradition, was an inspiration to all who heard him, framing the festival with the Brahms and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos.  These were not the shallow performances frequently heard, but deeply musical, idiomatic, even elegant ones.
   Neeme Järvi, who conducted Tretjakov in the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966 (which the teen-aged Tretjakov won) led both concerts.  The first (July 18) was with the Estonian National Youth Symphony Orchestra, a remarkably accomplished ensemble founded in 1995 by Juri-Ruut Kangur.  The second, which closed the festival (July 29), was with the St. Petersburg Festival Chamber Orchestra.
   Unfortunately, violinist Lydia Mordkovitch, a pupil and assistant to Oistrakh, canceled her master class and festival performance at the last minute, reportedly because of illness.  
   Joining Tretjakov was a bevy of young violinists who likewise honored Oistrakh: Clara Abou, Tatiana Berman, Mihhail Gantvarg, Alexander Gilman, Kathy Kang, Natalia Lihhopoi, Andrei Rozendent, Victoria Sutherland, Akiko Suwanai and Irmina Trynkos.
left to right: Viktor Tretjakov, David Geringas, Neeme Järvi
A guest I particularly pleased to to hear was cellist David Geringas.  A protege of Mstislav Rostropovich, Geringas has made a splendid recording of Lepo Sumera’s Cello Concerto with Paavo Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (BIS).  To hear him perform Brahms’ Double Concerto with the fine Japanese violinist Suwanai and the Latvian National Symphony (July 27 at Pärnu Concert Hall) was doubly rewarding.  The all-Brahms concert, led with precision and depth by Paavo Järvi, also featured the German Requiem with the peerless State Choir “Latvija,” Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, soprano Alexandra Lubchansky and baritone Esa Ruuttenen.
   I have commented in past seasons about the outstanding Finnish pianist Antti Siirala and Estonian oboist Kalev Kuljus.  Both were heard at the 2008 festival, Siirala in a solo recital in Pärnu Town Hall (July 19), that included the complete Chopin Preludes Op. 28, Kuljus in a concert in the Kammersaal of Pärnu Concert Hall (July 20).
    The latter, one of the most interesting concerts of the festival, included Prokofiev’s quirky, infrequently heard Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56, with Tretjakov and Lihhopoi, Galina Grigoryeva’s 2003 “Recitativo accompagnato” for solo cello, performed with amazing facility by Kaasik, and Tonu Korvits’ intriguing “Wild Birds” for oboe, cello and piano (Kuljus, Kaasik and pianist Marko Martin).
   Flutist Maarika Järvi, a champion of Estonian flute music, was a guest artist, as was clarinetist Selvadore Rahni, the RTE Vanbrugh (Ireland) and Prezioso (Estonia) String Quartets and a quartet of fine singers who performed an opera gala led by Italian conductor Fabio Mastrangelo in Pärnu Concert Hall (July 24).
   Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s 2001 “Leonides” dedicated to Maarika Järvi, who performed it at Tori with her father Neeme Järvi, was one of the “hits” of the festival.  Named for the annual comet shower arising in the constellation Leo –itself a potent image for the Estonian soldiers – it was repeated on a marathon “Järvi’s on the Lake” concert August 2 at Lake Leigo in South Estonia (a play on words, since järv means “lake” in Estonian).   
    Linked to the violin theme was the “Gypsy Devils,” an eight-piece gypsy band from Slovakia led by violinist Stefan Banyak. Their viscerally exciting concert at Pärnu Concert Hall (a sellout July 21) featured a sensational cimbalom virtuoso, Ernest Sarkozi, and covered everything from Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 to “Zorba the Greek.”  Two of Sarkozi’s encores were performed a) with a cloth before his eyes and b) a cloth spread over the cimbalom. 
St. Elizabeth Church, Pärnu, Estonia
The two concerts led by students of the Järvi Summer Academy (July 23 at St. Elisabeth Church, July 25 in Tori) gave festival-goers a look at a dozen podium aspirants from around the world  (see “Reviews” on this site).  They also included memorable performances by violinists Berman (Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” a tribute to Pärnu itself) and Sutherland (Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres”).
    The final concert led by Neeme Järvi (July 29 at Pärnu Concert Hall) featured violinists Rozendent, Kang, Gilman and Kuulmann in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10, virtuoso bon-bons by Gilman, Trynkos and Kang (Wieniaswski, Sarasate and Saint-Saens), cellist Geringas in Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op. 19, and a virtuoso turn of his own, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” followed by Tretjakov’s climactic Tchaikovsky Concerto.  
   As in past years, the 2008 Oistrakh Festival was definitely worth crossing the ocean to hear.  However, it is a shame that more people do not know about this “well kept secret” on the shores of the Baltic.
Beach on the Baltic Sea, Pärnu, Estonia
Pärnu in the summer is a world class attraction itself, with its perfect weather, white sand beach, leafy parks, impressive “old town” (dating from the 13th century), charming residences and flowers everywhere.  Not to mention the famous health spas, where guests are pampered with body-nourishing activities and therapies of all kinds.
Red Tower (13th century), Pärnu, Estonia

   And yet …
   Situated in paradise or not, Pärnu’s (and Estonia’s) great summer festival needs more than stewardship and love, however sincere and devoted, to thrive.  It needs business and promotional acumen, increased human resources and whole-hearted support, both public and private.
  Support doesn’t mean joining the rhythmic clapping that typically ends Oistrakh Festival concerts.  It means financial and in-kind support and staff in adequate numbers with enhanced business and language skills (knowledge of English is in fact necessary to negotiate in today’s international arena).  
   Each year a bare bones staff of two or three – with big hearts and the best of intentions – tries to do it all:
Herme Endoya, producer, David Oistrakh Festival
hiring, promotion, care and feeding of artists, etc.  In charge of the Järvi Summer Academy this year -- virtually alone, indefatigable and remarkably successful -- was Holger Kaasik, 19.  He should be cloned.
   Funding shortfalls (inevitable in today’s sluggish economy) aggravate the problem.  Engaging artists requires ample lead time because the best talent must be booked far in advance.  Promotion is expensive and requires single-minded attention.  Media support is vital and again must be cultivated well in advance.
   Government support, Europe’s ace-in-the-hole comes and (increasingly) goes in today’s uncertain economy.  Private sponsorship – and I met some very enthusiastic sponsors at a post-festival reception at Pärnu’s Victoria Hotel – must be found to breach the gap.
   Estonians like Neeme Järvi and his family have a natural affinity for their native land and for Pärnu, where they, like Oistrakh, spent many happy summers.  Artists and ensembles from around the world are eager to work with them, but is there an over-dependency problem?  ”The Oistrakh Festival is inside me and I can’t get rid of it,” said Järvi (Neeme) at the reception at the Victoria Hotel.  But was his performance of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, which closed the final concert with candles extinguished one by one as the musicians exited the stage, a signal? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuFU4Z3EC5k  Should the concept of the festival itself be altered or expanded?
    The sapling that has taken root in Pärnu can become hardy and strong -- just like the thousands of trees I saw being planted by Estonians on an archival video at the Pärnu City Museum.  Light, air, water and fertile soil do it for trees.
canopy of oak trees, Ringi St., Pärnu, Estonia
Human endeavors need something like that, too.