Pärnu, Estonia’s summer capital, is tucked within a huge natural harbour on the Baltic country's southern coast. Mysteriously unknown to British holiday-makers but a firm favourite with the Finns (and, once upon a time, violinist David Oistrakh and composer Dmitri Shostakovich), the city boasts pristine white beaches with a gloriously safe, swimmable patch of sea, a delightful mix of old and new architecture, lush wooded spaces, superb restaurants and more spas than you could shake a stick at. Oh, and a truly wonderful music festival that’s starting at last to make a name for itself outside Estonia.
The Pärnu Music Festival, held earlier in July, has four major trump cards up its sleeve – firstly, Pärnu is lucky enough to possess Estonia’s finest concert hall, a 1,000-seater, seven-year-old gem of a space that hosts many of the festival’s superb concerts.
Secondly, the festival is directed and nurtured by none other than irrepressible conductor Paavo Järvi, who each year invites his equally gifted family along too: his baton-wielding father Neeme and brother Kristjan, plus various aunts, uncles – and even young children. There are, at last count, at least nine professional Järvis taking part… Are there any members of the Järvi family who aren’t musical?, I ask Paavo in his dressing room one evening. He thinks for a moment, smiles, and shakes his head.
The festival’s third trump card comes in the form of the festival orchestra, an ensemble of players hand-picked by Paavo Järvi from orchestras around the world – not just the finest, he tells me, but individuals likely to ‘muck in’, get on, and help give the festival its intimate and joyful atmosphere.
Many of the players perform in chamber concerts throughout the festival, some even starring as concerto soloists (including clarinetist Matthew Hunt who, together with bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann, give a charming and riveting performance of Richard Strauss’s rarely-performed, sensational Duett-Concertino). Estonia’s own composers get a good look-in throughout the week, including Eduard Tubin, whose Symphony No. 6 and Violin Concerto get impressive airings, and, naturally, Estonia’s own living legend, Arvo Pärt, who comes along to watch two of his works be stunningly performed.
There isn’t a hint of a hothouse environment on stage – these are simply musicians having the time of their lives, no small thanks to the inspiring Paavo Järvi himself, and they’re an inspiration, in turn, to the festival youth orchestra, a collection of Estonia’s finest young musical talent who, alternately with the festival orchestra, give some of the week’s most electrifying performances.
Finally, no festival would be complete without its audience, and Pärnu’s crowd is warm, supportive and appreciative. Paavo Järvi is, it seems, playing to friends – and that’s exactly what a festival should be all about.