This year’s Eilat Chamber Music Festival offers a generous swathe of musical entertainment and endeavor. Naturally there is plenty of the classical musical discipline – in several guises – in the 11-day program (February 17-27). There will be some world music, for example courtesy of Israeli percussion duo Percadu, high energy offerings from maverick Hungarian Gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos and his merry ensemble, and an equally entertaining and musically expansive slot called Violins of the World, led by Austrian violinist Aleksey Igudesman.
Still, there can’t be many more eclectically-oriented acts around than the Hortus Musicus ensemble from Estonia which will perform a diverse program fittingly entitled Pilgrimage of Tunes, in Eilat on February 19 (9 p.m.). There probably aren’t many ensembles that have been around as long either. Hortus Musicus and its leader, 56 year old violinist Andres Mustonen, have been honing their craft and spreading their oeuvre together since back in 1972.
In the intervening close to four decades the ensemble has run the gamut of early European music, from Gregorian chants through eighteenth century baroque music. And there has been plenty of non-western enterprise too, all driven by Mustonen and his ceaseless striving to conquer new cultural and artistic territory.
Growing up in Estonia in the Sixties, one of Mustonen’s earliest influences was of a surprisingly mainstream nature. “I loved the Beatles,” he recalls. “The melodies were so nice and the harmonies too.” But pop didn’t rule the roost for too long. “I started playing mandolin when I was four and then moved on to violin a year later. By the time I was 16 or 17 I was into new and avant-garde music, you know, works by people like [20th-century German experimentalist Karlheinz] Stockhausen and [20th-century American composer-philosopher] John Cage. I studied in Tallin and in Moscow and got into all the contemporary stuff. I was fascinated by it back then.”
Having traversed the artistic divide from the Fab Four to the more challenging environs of contemporary classical music, Mustonen took a large chronological stride back down the musical ladder. “I became interested in medieval and renaissance music. I realized there is such a wide range of that music, so much to play and explore.” The move, it seems, caused quite a stir. “When I started Hortus in 1972 it changed all musical life in Estonia, because nobody here knew about this music before. We started playing Renaissance music, works from Spain and troubadour and cathedral music, as well as works by Bach and Vivaldi.”
Before long, Mustonen began looking beyond the strict confines of western music, and the influences of Swedish and German folk songs that have left their imprint on music in Estonia over the years, and moved over to our part of the cultural domain. “For me Jewish music and culture are the basis for all western music and culture and philosophy,” he declares, adding that it wasn’t just a matter of casting his net across as wide a cultural terrain as possible and seeing what came up. “I am not a fan of folk or world music. I am more interested in more serious music. Folk music is important but I am more interested in the big cultures. Maybe Estonia was too near for me. I wanted to look further away.”
Mustonen clearly doesn’t do anything by halves. For some, delving into Jewish music means making the odd departure into klezmer, while others may prefer to go the Sephardi route, into Ladino and/or Andalusian material. Mustonen appears to have left no Jewish musical stone unturned. “We play Jewish temple songs and synagogue music – including from Casablanca and Morocco. And I am interested in the meeting point between Jewish and Arabic music too. They have a lot in common. Jewish music is so rich and gave so much to the rest of the world. Jewish music is the most important music for me in my life”
Mustonen often puts his violin where his mouth is, in Estonia and elsewhere around the globe. “We have played in Israel many times before,” he says. “It is always wonderful to come to Israel where, of course, most people are Jewish. I feel a strong connection with that. I also know a rabbi in [Estonian capital] Tallin. We played for the Jewish community in Tallin on the Jewish New Year. I have also played at Holocaust Day ceremonies. What happened to the Jewish people is very tragic.”
A few moments into any Hortus Musicus CD, or a YouTube clip of the ensemble, convey a clear impression that there is more to Mustonen and Hortus Musicus than “merely” playing the charts. The violinist seems to be intent on combining calisthenics with his daytime job, and there is always plenty of variety of sound, rhythm and on-stage dynamics to be had.
“I do believe in providing entertainment,” says Mustonen, “although not for entertainment’s sake. The focus must always be on the art and culture, and the serious side of what we do.” Although there is no doubting the professionalism and musicianship of Mustonen and his fellow instrumentalists and singers, there is a clear fun aspect to their work. “We wear traditional costumes and we take care of the esthetic side of things, like a sort of spectacle,” the violinist-leader continues. “It is a little bit theatrical but we steer clear of commercialism. I don’t believe there is any room for that in what we do, definitely not.”
Given his across-the-board ethos, it comes as no surprise to learn that Mustonen also dabbles in other genres. “I play in a jazz quartet too, with violin, acoustic bass, electric guitar and percussion. It’s sort of baroque jazz. We play things like the [JS Bach’s] Goldberg Variations in a jazz style.” Over the years the variations have been explored by numerous jazz and jazz-oriented artists, like French pianist Jacques Loussier and American pianist Uri Caine, and provide a fertile bedrock for improvising in different directions. “We also play swing-based jazz,” Mustonen continues. “Jazz is pretty popular here in Estonia, and we play at the Estonian Jazz Festival [in Tallin].”
Although there won’t be any jazz endeavor in the Hortus Musicus Eilat program later this month, patrons will, no doubt, get their money’s worth. And the entertainment won’t just be of the sit-back-and-relax variety. “Audience participation is important for us too, and I am looking forward to getting the audience in Eilat involved,” says the violinist. “There will be five or six songs in Hebrew so I think that will help to get people’s attention.”
For its visit here, the ensemble will include 10 members, with three
combining vocal and instrumental duties. The instrumental lineup will
feature a cross-cultural blend with a dulcimer, harpsichord, recorders,
a trombone, and various string and percussion instruments, including
“When you play music for other people you have to communicate with
them,” states Mustonen. “Music doesn’t just exist in the air – it has
to convey something. My personality is important but there are some
very good musicians in the ensemble too. We do some crazy things in our
concerts but I think it is all in the interest of good music.”
For more information go to: www.eilat-festival.com