Estonian Festival Orchestra – Noble Project and Fine Sound


Pärt, Sibelius, Shostakovich: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 20.1.2018 (JR)

Pärt Cantus in memory of Benjamin BrittenFratres for string orchestra and percussion;

Sibelius – Violin Concerto Op.47

Shostakovich – Symphony No.6 Op.54

There were many good reasons to attend this most enjoyable concert. In no particular order: to hear the Estonian Festival Orchestra who have been likened to the superb Lucerne Festival Orchestra; to hear the new Chief Conductor-in-waiting of the Tonhalle albeit with one of his own current orchestras; to hear Viktoria Mullova (not seen in Zurich for a very long time) and to hear an eclectic programme of music not often heard in these parts.

But first we needed a history and geography lesson. The Estonian Culture Minister was on stage to tell us we were celebrating 100 years of Estonian independence, conveniently forgetting to mention that Russia invaded in 1938 and only let go in 1991. Then we were told exactly where Estonia was and of its beauty – we were urged to visit. Paavo Järvi, after the concert, also recommended a visit in August to the seaside resort of Pärnu where the Estonian Festival Orchestra has its home. It’s also where the Järvi family has its summerhouse, which Shostakovich visited when Paavo was 10. There is a photo to prove it.

Paavo Järvi formed the orchestra in 2011 and it gave its debut as the ‘Resident Summer Orchestra’ at the newly inaugurated Pärnu Music Festival. I have actually been to Pärnu, in deepest winter when, I have to say, its charms quite eluded me, but in summer its lengthy sandy beach will no doubt hold some attraction.

The very worthy aim of Järvi and the orchestra is to introduce hand-picked young Estonian musicians (who make up roughly half the players) to established professionals in European orchestras, players drawn in particular from some of Järvi’s current and past orchestras, from Frankfurt, Bremen and Berlin – the Concertmaster plays in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (and one could hear it). Järvi, a sort of father figure to the orchestra, describes the orchestra as a web of musical contacts.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt featured with two of his most popular works. Pärt felt drawn to Benjamin Britten, wanted to meet him but political ructions prevented a meeting. Pärt, on hearing of Britten’s death, wrote a moving and haunting homage. It is a ‘less is more’ work, continually decreasing scales with a tolling bell as soulful accompaniment – most effective. The orchestra played it to perfection. After the interval we heard Fratres, another homage, this time to Estonian composer Eduard Tubin, who died in 1982. The piece has similarities to the Cantus, written in Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style, influenced by Pärt’s mystical experiences with chant. The work conjures up an image of monks slowly proceeding to Mass, in an aura of spiritual peace. Neeme Järvi has done much to champion Pärt’s work, and Neeme’s son Paavo is now carrying this on with clear affection and skill.

Before the interval, Viktoria Mullova stunned us in a black and white tiger-print dress. She has been described as the Ice Queen and austere; true, she smiles little, but the audience melted as her technique astounded. Playing was flawless, intonation secure, interpretation classic, flamboyance neither required nor supplied. The orchestra accompanied with style, especially the pair of clarinets, the pair of oboes and the very fine bassoonist. Mullova rewarded the lengthy and loud applause with some soothing Bach.

And finally, what Järvi described as a gem of a symphony, Shostakovich’s Sixth, a work too infrequently heard in concert. The Sixth is usually eclipsed by weighty symphony numbers 4 and 5, and then 7 and 8, all full length symphonies, whilst number 6 leaves the Shostakovich addict rather short changed (at 33 minutes in length). Järvi has just recorded the Sixth symphony, in Pärnu, with the Festival Orchestra. The first movement, a bleak affair (it was written in 1938/39 which probably explains much), is reminiscent of the chillier parts of the Eleventh Symphony, but then the central Allegro is playful and the final Presto one of the composer’s wittiest movements. Järvi made a persuasive case to have the symphony performed more often and the orchestra impressed in all sections. They may not be the Lucerne Festival (few are), but they certainly combine to make an impressive sound.

Two utterly charming encores followed. I did not recognise either but the Concertmaster filled me in. The first was by Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, music to accompany a cartoon; and then Vallflickens Dans (Herdsman’s Dance) by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén.

After the concert, Järvi settled down to a beer in the concert hall bar and told the large gathering how much he looked forward to being Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle (as from autumn 2019). He will return to Zurich in October to conduct the Tonhalle Orchestra, but the programme is still under wraps. He will be on tour this year with the Estonian Festival Orchestra, to (among others) Brussels, Berlin, Luxembourg, Vienna and Hamburg and London for the BBC Proms. If you can get to any of these cities, you will certainly not be disappointed.

John Rhodes

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  1. Roger Portmann says:

    Thank you so much John Rhodes for your review. I agree absolutely, it was a great evening and I am so happy that here in Zurich we soon will get Paavo Järvi as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra. You could feel it in the audience of that evening that everybody was happy and thankful for such a marvelous concert and for getting soon such an outstanding conductor, a likable personality, so skilled yet free from unnecessary glamour. And thank you John for finding out what the two encores have been that followed the ovations of the audience. Greetings from Zurich, Switzerland

  2. Dear John,
    thank you for this positive review! Just to do my orchestra the honours: I am concertmaster not of the Berliner Phil but of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen! Next time we should provide some more information….
    And yes, Pärnu is beautiful in summer! Come along next time!
    And the film is called “Kevadine Kärbes”
    All the best, Florian

  3. Maret Zadotti says:

    Greetings John
    Sorry I missed seeing you at the concert. Thank you for the most positive review. What you were probably not aware of is that there were not only Estonians on stage but in the audience also. We were deeply touched by this performance and the significance of the occasion. We are very proud to have Paavo in Zürich at theTonhalle in 2019.
    See you at the next concert!

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