Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Bells and Orchestra" - the 2017 Mustonenfest Estonian-Israeli Music Festival, the Arsis Handbell Ensemble, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem conducted by Andres Mustonen

The Arsis Handbell Ensemble,conductor Aivar Mae (photo:Maxim Reider)

“Bells and Orchestra”, a unique concert of the fourth Tallinn-Tel Aviv Mustonenfest (February
13th-March 1st 2017) took place in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 25th. No new face to Israeli concert audiences, festival musical director and violinist Andres Mustonen conducted the Israel Camerata Jerusalem. The concert also featured the Arsis Handbell Ensemble, Tallinn with its conductor Aivar Mäe.  

Known for his indomitable energy, Andres Mustonen will always keep his audience on its toes, playing works rarely heard in the concert hall or offering a different view on repertoire familiar to the concert-going public. The former was the case at the Tel Aviv concert, as he conducted Josef Haydn’s Symphony No.60 in C-major, Il Distratto (The Absent-minded One), actually incidental music to a German language version of “Le Distrait” (François Regnard), a comedy performed in 1774 at Esterháza, the home of Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s patron. The six movements parallel the play’s action, in which Leandre, in his absent-mindedness, dresses his valet instead of himself, on leaving a party alights the wrong carriage, taking him to someone else’s home, where he climbs into bed with a sleeping woman, then to be confronted by her furious husband, etc. Reading with relish into the work’s humorous programmatic content, Mustonen entertains the audience with its comical effects, such as when the music dies away in the first movement to depict Leandre forgetting what he was about to say…to suddenly return in boisterous utterance. The middle movements weave folk music into the comical score, the last laugh occurring in the final movement: coinciding with Leandre forgetting to go to his own wedding, the music screeches to a halt for the violins to tune their instruments. Mustonen’s fresh, crisp reading of this somewhat outlandish work was definitely in keeping with Regnard’s play and of course enhanced by Haydn’s sparkling sense of humour, reminding the listener that music is there to entertain us.

And the program held another surprise: a setting of the Chaconne from J.S.Bach’s Partita No.2 for violin BWV 1004 by Estonian singer and composer Tõnis Kaumann. Kaumann (b.1971) is a post-modern composer, whose music blends a number of styles, from pop and jazz to the Viennese Classical style, to Gregorian chant and more. His writing is characterized by its technical fluency, humour and, sometimes, by his liking for the absurd.  In this arrangement, Kaumann has added an orchestral role to the solo violin piece. At the Tel Aviv event, Andres Mustonen played the violin solo. As he played the well-known virtuoso piece with vim and vitality, Kaumann’s orchestral agenda added interesting harmonic and textural dimensions to it, also creating a strong rhythmic (at times, quite jazzy) pulse. Then there were small duets played with Mustonen by orchestra members. At times, the orchestra gave the stage to Mustonen, providing a minimal background to intense moments of the solo violin role, at others, engaging in virtuosic interaction together with him or enhancing the violin part with rich tutti textures. In sections where the violin was left to play without orchestra, the effect was of that of a cadenza. The arrangement also evoked the dark, dramatic aspect of the Chaconne’s minor middle section. Kaumann’s intelligent and exhilarating setting made for an excellent concert piece, proving that Bach’s music is flexible and that it can work well with the originality and invention of another daring composer.

An especially interesting section of the concert was devoted to works of Estonian composer Peeter Vähi, who was present at the Tel Aviv event.  Vähi (b.1955) is a composer whose style arises from his academic training, his experience in pop music, in electric sound and processing, also from his deep enquiry into the roots of oriental culture as well as his own spirituality and deep faith. This has resulted in music that is highly personal, at the same time creating connections between epochs and cultures. In recent decades, he has cooperated with musicians from Tibet, India, Japan, Uzbekistan, China, Japan, Siberia and from other parts of Asia. The first of his works played at the Tel Aviv concert, “Forty-Two” for oboe and chamber orchestra (1997), was dedicated to Elvis Presley, Joe Dassin and Vladimir Vysotsky; the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s principal oboist Muki Zohar played the solo. The tonal, noble piece, one of great delicacy, its pensive, nostalgic oboe melodies set against the slow-stepping orchestral course, was addressed with beauty of sound and sensitiveness by Zohar. In Memorium HM (2005), actually written for early music consort, has a decidedly oriental flavour, with its dark-hued drone and focus on parallel octave melodies (solos: Mustonen and Zohar). Imposing and uncompromising in its stark message, the percussion ostinato added a funereal element to this haunting mood piece.

Following the intermission, the Arsis Handbell Ensemble (Tallinn), conducted by its artistic director Aivar Mäe, performed a number of pieces. Established in 1993 as part of the Arsis Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble consists of professional players using 7+4 octave sets of handbells and a 7-octave set of hand chimes. Opening with Tõnu Kõrvits’ arrangement of “Awake, My Heart”, an Estonian folk song, they proceeded to the delicately cascading sounds of Händel’s Passacaglia, to the perfect tranquillity of the Largo from Händel’s “Xerxes”, to the beguiling gypsy world of Liszt’s music ending with the nimble, virtuosic whirring of thousands of bees’ wings in Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”. The young players of the Arsis Ensemble displayed superb timing and musicality with the virtuosic skill acquired from first-class training and dedication.

The event concluded with Peeter Vähi’s Handbell Symphony (1995), a work for seven-octave handbell ensemble and chamber orchestra. Seemingly unlikely allies, Vähi proves that handbells orchestra can find a modus vivendi when approached with sensitive scoring and balance. Following the intensity and seriousness of the opening movement, with ‘cellos and double basses making for a menacing atmosphere, the second movement presented a bright, hearty and delightfully coloured canvas, with some effects, such as breathy utterances, temporarily taking the listener into an otherworldly mood. The third movement offered a mix of delicate, charming solo bell passages, punctuated by a feisty chord here and there, with the addition of some nice woodwind solos, oriental touches and an unleashed sense of freedom. Peeter Vähi’s symphony, fine festival fare, was a work to be experienced both visually and audially.

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s high quality musicianship added much to the evening’s enjoyment and excellence.

Composer Peeter Vähi (photo:Kauopo Kikkas)

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