Conductor Andres Mustonen brings Bach's body of work to life

Tel Aviv's MustonenFest porgram takes in works by Bach, Mozart, Estonian composer Jaan Rääts, 16th-century German composer Heinrich Schütz and 86-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

 ESTONIAN VIOLINIST-CONDUCTOR Andres Mustonen (center) with his Hortus Musicus ensemble. (photo credit: PNINA EVEN TAL)
ESTONIAN VIOLINIST-CONDUCTOR Andres Mustonen (center) with his Hortus Musicus ensemble.
(photo credit: PNINA EVEN TAL)

Andres Mustonen will have you doing a double take. If your perception of the live Western classical music experience is getting dressed up and heading off for some plush auditorium to watch an ensemble studiously following some score or other to its conclusion while, basically, little happens on stage in pure corporeal terms, the 68-year-old Estonian violinist-conductor will probably change that, permanently.

While there are certainly a couple of energetic conductors and players out there, Mustonen probably has them all beat. From his flowing locks, to snazzy footwear, not to mention his dynamic onstage body language and 1000 watt smile, the man is a classical music tour de force with a rock artist temperament.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to see his MustonenFest Tallinn – Tel Aviv festival roar back to full throttle life after last year’s COVID-19 enforced hiatus. The local event started out here in 2014, with the support of the Tallinn City Government, Estonian Ministry of Culture, Estonian Cultural Endowment and Tel Aviv Municipality. The Tel Aviv program is an offshoot of the main festival, which has been taking place in Tallinn for more than two decades.

Mustonen is not one to quibble over disciplinary delineations. As far as he is concerned, music is just music, pure and simple. While he predominantly engages in early and contemporary music himself, over the years his festivals have hosted a wide array of musicians, including jazz, baroque and ethnically-flavored fare.

The current MustonenFest program, which kicked off earlier this week and is due to run around the country until March 26, takes in works by Bach, Mozart, Estonian composer Jaan Rääts, 16th-century German composer Heinrich Schütz and 86-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose oeuvre runs the gamut from minimalist charts to lush polyphonic choral pieces that feed off Gregorian chants. 

ANDRES MUSTONEN  (credit: Courtesy)ANDRES MUSTONEN (credit: Courtesy)

Fittingly, there are several locally created slots on the festival roster, including works by the likes of 73-year-old Josef Bardanashvili and 67-year-old Eitan Steinberg. Oh, and the Estonian entry to the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, soprano Elina Nechayeva, is also in the lineup.

Mustonen is no stranger to this country. He has been performing here, with his Hortus Musicus early music ensemble – which celebrates its half-century this year – for more than 30 years, and has conducted numerous Israeli orchestras.

Naturally, given the shenanigans of the past couple of years, the current edition is somewhat pared back, even if this time we will miss out on the unparalleled choral qualities Estonians seem to imbibe with their mother’s milk. Having had the great pleasure of attending the main event in Tallinn a few years back I can attest to the sense of celestial bliss that envelopes the listener when Estonian chorists go forth in pristine sonorous fashion. 

But there is still plenty of class and variety to be had over the next month or so. “This time we did not bring any choirs with us [from Estonia],” says the founder-artistic director, “but the program is very good.” 

That much is evident across a highly variegated board. Many of us have been accustomed to witnessing an orchestra perform, say, pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and, possibly, Tchaikovsky. 

But it is rare to find works by Monteverdi, Pärt, Bardanashvili and Steinberg all snugly lined up together, such as in the A Bridge Across the Ages concert, which takes place at the Hecht Auditorium in Haifa on March 13 (2:15 p.m.) with Mustonen fronting his longstanding Hortus Musicus pals. 

“Early music and contemporary music are very important to me,” he notes. “Together they are like one word. For me it doesn’t matter if it is early music or historical music or modern music. The most important thing is the spirit of the music. I try to do the music of Pärt, Bardanashvili and Steinberg, and [50-year-old] Estonian composer Tönis Kaumann, and we connect with early composers like Monteverdi.”

Then again it very much depends on how you view creations that first saw the light of day at very different stages of the human timeline. How do you, for example, bridge the seeming gaping stylistic chasm between Renaissance-Baroque composer and Kaumann. Mustonen sees no problem there. “Monteverdi, for us, is a special composer. He is like a modern composer.” 

While equating the works of a 16th-17th century Italian composer with the offerings of a definitively footloose and fancy-free 21st-century creator such as Steinberg may, for many, be a bit of a dome scratcher, it is a fair bet that witnessing Hortus Musicus running their rule over such temporally divergent repertoire should go a fair way to settling that. 

One striking case in point, when it comes to the giants of the field, is Bach. The late Baroque period composer’s output has been adopted and adapted by artists across all kinds of genres, and has often been dubbed as “the first jazz artist.”

Some of those sentiments will be displayed in Mustonen’s free solo concert at the Red Sea Music Center in Eilat on Sunday (8 p.m.), when he bows his way through Bach’s sonatas nos. 1003 and 1005. 

“For a violinist, Bach sonatas are like the Himalayas. They are the highest mountains of musical history. This is absolutely the highest combination of polyphonic and harmonic – horizontal thinking and vertical thinking. That is especially so in Bach music for one instrument. No other composer is at this level of music.”

As befitting the European art music of the times, prior to around 1840, there is a major improvisational element to Bach’s writing. No wonder he is so often cited as a major influence on many a jazz artist.

“Last week, in Estonia, we played all the Goldberg Variations [by Bach] with a jazz group,” says Mustonen. “Bach is everywhere. For me Bach is the first jazz composer. But there are a few Bach texts which show the key to freedom [in musical interpretation].”

There are, says Mustonen, various layers one can work through and feed off across Bach’s gargantuan body of work. 

“We have to understand the construction, and even the number security.” Number security? That sounds a little obscure. “It is like kabbalah,” Mustonen continues. “There is deep mystery in Bach’s music. I try to get as close as possible to this, to the spiritual side of his music.”

That, and plenty of fun and get-go. 

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