All the colors of Estonia

“There is war, love, magic and all kinds of things that you get in a real opera.”

The Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir. (photo credit: YACHATZ)
The Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir.
(photo credit: YACHATZ)
Andres Mustonen is the most irrepressible of characters. The sexagenarian Estonian violinist-conductor has become quite a fixture on the Israeli classical music circuit in the last few years, performing regularly at such major events as the annual Eilat Chamber Music Festival and the biannual Abu Ghosh vocal music festival.
Over the last couple of years, Mustonen has upped his local profile ante as the artistic director of the Mustonenfest Tallinn-Tel Aviv Festival, the third edition of which will take place from February 18 to March 2. Most of the concerts will be held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the nearby Opera House, but there are more slots in Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, Abu Ghosh, Kfar Shmaryahu and Haifa.
The festival has not only spread its geographical wings, but the program also takes in expansive genre and stylistic tracts, including two operas, jazz and world music. It is no less than we have come to expect from Mustonen, who has become one of the most colorful and prominent figures on the Israeli classical music scene. Mind you, the term “classical” should be used advisedly here, as he feeds off sounds and rhythms from such seemingly extramural areas of musical endeavor as jazz and ethnic material, in addition to his base line of musical expression.
Mustonen has gone for broke this year, with some 350 musicians in the festival lineup. These include leading choirs and ensembles from Estonia and Israel and musicians who straddle several musical worlds.
One of the more intriguing items in the program is a jazz-oriented rendition of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, which will take place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 26 (at 9 p.m.), featuring the Art Jazz Quartet from Estonia, with Mustonen on violin, Taavo Remmel on double bass, Jaak Sooaar on guitar and Tabel Ruben on percussion. The foursome will be complemented by three of our own top musicians, who also keep their able fingers in several musical pies – pianist Anat Fort, oboist Yoram Lachish and saxophonist Gan Lev. It is a sort of follow-up to last year’s festival’s jazz-infused reading of several Brandenburg concerti, which went down very well with the crowd.
The artistic director is particularly happy with the inclusion of Handel’s opera Rinaldo – the first Italian- language opera written specifically for the London stage – because of its local connection.
“Rinaldo is very important for me because the Rinaldo history is the Jerusalem history,” he notes. The storyline of the opera takes place during a Crusader siege of Jerusalem.
“It is also the first superstar composer and first superstar opera in London,” Mustonen continues. “There is war, love, magic and all kinds of things that you get in a real opera.”
The sumptuous production features the Estonian National Opera ensemble and soloists, with Mustonen wielding the conductor’s baton.
There is more operatic entertainment by Handel on offer at the festival, with Mustonen also on the conductor’s dais for a performance of selected scenes from Julius Caesar. He will be joined for the February 27 concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art by compatriots soprano Helen Lokuta and mezzo- sopranos Monika-Evelin Liiv and Juuli Lill and Israeli soprano Claire Meghnagi, as well as internationally acclaimed Israeli countertenor Yaniv D’Or and Estonian tenor Oliver Kuusik. The Voces Musicales chamber choir will also be coming over from Estonia for the occasion.
The classical music spectrum at the festival goes in practically every direction. The February 23 Sound the Trumpet slot at the Opera House in Tel Aviv, for example, includes works by Shostakovich; Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s Concert for Trumpet; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2; and, naturally, a work by iconic Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, his Symphony No. 3. The featured soloist is Russian trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov, who will be joined by pianist Maria Meerovitch and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion.
Fans of vocal music will no doubt be happy to see the Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir in action along with Mustonen, who will conduct and play violin, and the Israel Camerata. The largely Estonia- oriented program includes two Estonian Folk Hymns by Cyrillius Creek and “Eks teie tea” (Know ye not) by Rudolf Tobias, as well as Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 3 in D Major and Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia.
The eclectic range of material has been a hallmark of the festival, which reflects Mustonen’s own professional ethos.
“For me, jazz music, classic or whatever, it’s all just music,” he declares. “It comes from traditional music, too.”
Anyone who has attended a Mustonen concert will know that the man simply has no limits. He is the most animated of performers, who seems to be able to seamlessly combine calisthenics with his conducting and fiddling roles (recent hip replacement notwithstanding) while going merrily along with the musical flow. Mustonen is always happy to feature choral music on his rosters.
“In general, singing is very free, like for jazz musicians,” he says. “I do classical music and jazz music, and I do a lot of improvisation. I am very open to improvisation in music. I never want to repeat something. Today, for example, I am doing Schubert’s Mass, and every time I do it in a different style.”
He was on tour in Finland prior to the Tel Aviv festival. Mustonen is clearly determined to keep himself and his audiences on their toes.
“For me, music is not about career or image or anything like that,” he states. “People are always too pragmatic. There should be more live performances and risk. When a musician takes a risk, when he plays improvisation, he frees himself and gets better musical understanding and keeps everything open, very open, to ideas.”
That is not a new notion in the classical world.
“I think that Bach was the first jazz musician,” continues Mustonen. “There was improvisation in his work. When I play Bach with jazz musicians, they are always so enthusiastic because it is the same language for them. It is, of course, super virtuosic music, but Bach also gave the musician a key to improvisation.”
Mustonen will certainly be kept out of mischief during the course of the festival, playing violin and conducting umpteen concerts over the fortnight, including the opening A Classical Appetizer slot in which he will join forces, on violin, with pianist Ivo Sillamaa in a program of sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven.
Sillamaa is also a member of the Hortus Musicus ensemble. Created by Mustonen in 1972, the ensemble specializes in early works such as Gregorian chants and Renaissance music.
Typically, Mustonen is unfazed by the impending workload.
“For me, it is not work,” he says. “It is pleasure. This is my life. I can do this 26 hours a day, not 24.”
For more information about the Mustonenfest Tallinn-Tel Aviv Festival: