Monday, August 25, 2008

No Place Like Leigo

Latvian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi performing on Lake Leigo.

Scene at Lake Leigo during Brahms' German Requiem led by Neeme Järvi with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and State Choir "Latvija." Photos by Mary Ellyn Hutton

August 25, 2008

By Mary-Ellyn Hutton
Tõnu Tamm, the “man behind the curtain” at Estonia’s astonishing Lake Leigo Music Festival, is part Wizard of Oz, part Richard Wagner. The 10-year-old festival, held in August in hilly South Estonia near Otepää, partakes somewhat of Woodstock, too (in venue and length and timing of concerts), but Leigo is far less a happening than the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Tamm, a biologist and former documentary film maker, retired to the Shire-like countryside in 1981, taking his love of music and art with him. He married it with nature by creating his own theater on the water with an imagination and wizardry worthy of the master of Bayreuth.
Where else in the world could you sit on the banks of a lake while the sound of a pipe organ, like the voice of an ancient deity, rebounds from the evergreen forest, candles float into the air and bonfires go up on the opposite shore?
At Leigo. you can hear everything from classical to rock and ethnic music, played out far from city lights and noise and stage managed to blend with the natural environment. (Also on the 2008 festival were Estonian saxophonist Villu Veski and Faroese singer Eivor.)
This year the festival drew on Estonia’s natural resources in more ways than one. Performing August 2 were members of the Järvi family, Estonia’s first family of music.
The concert, a four-part marathon that began at 6 p.m. and lasted until after midnight with intermissions, featured 13 Järvi’s, ages 14-71, belonging to the prodigious family headed by Estonian-born conductor Neeme Järvi (one thinks of the Bach family for comparison).
The word järv means “lake” in Estonian, so the event gave Tamm the opportunity for a felicitous play on words: Järvid Leigo järvedel” (translated “Lakes on Leigo lakes”).
In addition to Neeme were his sons Paavo and Kristjan, both conductors, 45 and 36, respectively; daughter Maarika, 44 (flute); Paavo’s wife Tatiana, 28 (violin); Kristjan’s wife Hayley, 26 (flute and piccolo); Neeme's nephew Teet, 50 (cello, son of Neeme's late brother Vallo, also a conductor); Teet’s wife Mari, 49 (piano) and Teet and Mari's five children: Madis, 20 (viola), Marius, 26 (cello), Martin, 14 (violin), Mihkel, 23 (piano) and Miina, 25 (violin). Madis, a student at the Lahti Conservatory in Finland, is also a promising composer whose String Quartet was performed by Miina, Martin, Madis and Teet.
The concert included chamber, orchestral and choral/orchestral music divided into four “hours” or segments. The musicians, including the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and State Choir “Latvija,” performed on barges on the lake just below Tamm’s farmhouse.
A small barge drawn up to the shore held the chamber ensembles, which performed first. A larger barge for the orchestra and chorus lit by tall lamps shaped like inverted mushrooms stood near the opposite shore. As darkness approached (between 10 and 11 p.m. in August) the lamps took on different colors, complementing the fire and light show on the bank behind them. Close ups of the performers could be seen on a huge TV screen on the listeners’ side of the lake.
At the highpoint of the evening, during the final movements of Brahms’ German Requiem with the Latvian Orchestra and Choir led by Neeme Järvi, the sight and sounds were awe-inspiring. “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?” (“Death, where is thy sting?”) shouted the chorus as flames from the bonfires rose high into the air. Streams of colored light penetrated the smoke and were projected onto the evergreen forest framing the lake. Lighted candles attached to helium balloons (black for invisibility at night) were loosed to float up to the sky and take their place among the constellations.
The audience, which numbered 1,500, began gathering in late afternoon and were able to watch the camera crew from Estonian Television assemble and test their equipment during the final ensemble rehearsals. Listeners brought blankets and jackets (the night was cool, dropping into the 40s after dark) and sat in lawn seats provided by emt, Estonia’s telecommunications company. A threat of rain earlier in the day did not materialize. Food and drink were available throughout the evening at concession tables near the farmhouse.
The musicians, most in formal dress, boarded the barges via ramps from the shore. Three people in a row boat lit floating candles and placed them on the lake surface as dusk approached...
It was all M & M’s for the first half. Violinist Miina and pianist Mihkel led off with the brief, sweetly romantic “Poeme d’amour” by Estonian composer Arthur Lemba. Cellist Marius joined them in a very well played Piano Trio in C Major, “Lovisa Trio,” by Sibelius. Marius made agile work of David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Op. 38 (with mother Mari on piano), followed by a fleet virtuoso encore, Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Having heard and admired Madis’ String Quartet in rehearsal earlier in the day, I found my impressions confirmed at the concert. About 12 minutes long, it recalls Shostakovich in the opening scherzo-like movement. It turns reflective, then intense, in the slow movement, where a lovely viola solo projects through gorgeous string sonorities. The third movement is a romp, with the hint of a “motto” theme, more good-humored than sardonic, by the cello. Perhaps most striking was the finale, which began with the four instruments on legato chords followed by a rough, march-like passage. A contrasting, heartfelt violin solo, taken up by the viola, led back into the opening sonorities and the work was capped by an echo of the scherzo and its motto-like theme.
Teet Järvi demonstrated a warm, enveloping tone colored with intense vibrato in Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango.” The music grew mournful, then vigorous with some tart, double-stopped glissandos at the end. Mari accompanied splendidly on the piano.
The first tund (hour) of the concert ended with Marius Järvi in a mind-blowing performance of Australian composer Carl Vine’s 1994 “Inner World” for cello and pre-recorded tape. It is a dramatic work (about 12 minutes) with some aching, opening outcries by the solo cello, repeated sul ponticello (on the bridge). There are lots of percussive effects on the tape (a kind of alter ego of the soloist). The music evolved into a bizarre duo at times. There were sounds of laughing, popcorn (?) and Asian-flavored metal percussion in addition to taped cello. At other times, the music, which was surprisingly melodic overall, had a more traditional solo and accompaniment flavor. It worked up to a dance-like conclusion, with Järvi tapping the cello, then generating fireworks as he poured on ascending, step-wise arpeggios.
There were breaks between each hour of the concert, the longest between the second and third, when audience members sought refreshments, the small barge was towed to the side, and the orchestra and choir moved onto the larger stage.
What would Leigo be without the organ, Tamm’s favorite instrument? (He often collaborates with the annual Tallinn International Organ Festival.) Accordingly, hours two and three began with organ music: Louis Marchand’s “Fond d’orgue” and Pachelbel’s Canon (performed by Mari Järvi) and Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” (Aare-Paul Lattiku).
Flutist Maarika Järvi lent her considerable talents to Mozart’s Flute Quartet, K.285, with Miina, Madis and Marius on violin, viola and cello. Hayley Järvi followed suit with a delightful performance of Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major, RV 443, accompanied by a Järvi chamber ensemble.

Works by J.S. Bach comprised some of the loveliest moments of the evening, with the Double Violin Concerto performed by Tatiana and Miina Järvi and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major with Tatiana and flutists Maarika and Hayley. The sound of flutes and violin was particularly charming in this setting. Tatiana, who has a feeling for baroque music, handled the violin’s rapid passage work and tremolando near the end with ease.

By the beginning of the second half, candles were being distributed over the lake and the fires on the opposite shore were smoking and taking on color. Paavo Järvi and the LNSO called into play the lake’s fountains, too, which spouted high into the air during their exhilarating performance of Smetana’s “The Moldau." Kristjan Järvi followed with the Suite No. 1 from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” which he led in an expressive manner reminiscent of his father (minimal, with a downward gaze in "Ase's Death," a big smile at the end of "Hall of the Mountain King").
Flutist Maarika returned for Estonian composer Urmas Sisask’s 2001 flute concerto “Leonides,” another work (like the Smetana) in tune with the natural environment. Sisask’s passion is astronomy and he pictures the flute here as a comet grazing the earth’s atmosphere and leaving a shower of meteors in its wake (Comet Temple-Tuttle, which annually produces a meteor shower in the constellation Leo, was his inspiration). Written for Maarika, it has a lively tango section and the potential to become a real audience favorite.
For logistical reasons, Maarika was unable to give it the same choreographic treatment she did in Tori, Estonia in July as part of the David Oistrakh Festival. There she walked on playing the flute (like a comet approaching Earth) and left the same way. At Leigo, she began playing in a row boat that ferried her to the barge, a nice touch awkward to duplicate at the end. Musically and visually, it was an impressive performance, though without the benefit of the warm acoustics of St. George’s Church in Tori.
Brahms Requiem was right at home at Leigo. Personal and non-liturgical, it harmonized well with the use of fire, particularly in the far northern countries where Christianity arrived last and Midsummer Night (June 24) is still celebrated with bonfires.
Järvi focused primarily on the light-shining-in-darkness aspect of the Requiem, with brisk tempos and an abundant feeling of joy. Soprano Pille Lill and baritone Atlan Karp were the capable soloists with “Latvija” Choir, a mixed chorus with few peers, which gave clarity and meaning to both the music and text. Applause was long and stubborn, some listeners refusing to give up even when it became clear that -- appropriately after such a long evening and such a meaningful conclusion – there would be no encore. For more of Lake Leigo Music, check out YouTube, where you can find clips of rock and pop concerts, Argentine tango dancers and even Tamm's (abandoned) Soviet era tank which has participated in Leigo Festival events.

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