Tuesday 1 September 2015

Pärnu: happy families, happy town


This is the unofficial Estonian royal family - great patriarch (and, ever since Edinburgh University days, when he took over the reins of the Scottish National Orchestra, my conducting hero) Neeme Järvi with his always direct and engaging wife Lillja on the right, their youngest son Kristjan on the left and the other, Paavo, driving force behind the Pärnu Music Festival (read all about it, and its two superb orchestras, on The Arts Desk), fourth from left. Plus assorted children/grandchildren, some of them very talented performers in the festival's annual afternoon children's concert.

There were at least nine Järvis performing in the festival. Here are some more in the fabulous three-hour chamber music concert, which gets Neeme's daughter Maarika into the picture (left) plus her cousin Teet the cellist, centre, and two more Järvis; the fifth player was the girlfriend of another since one more Järvi couldn't make it. Both photos courtesy of the excellent Kaupo Kikkas.

I actually found some press pics from my first time in Estonia, back in 1989 (more about it here): a very emotional return for Neeme, who hadn't seen his family in the nine years since he'd emigrated to America and whose mother had died in his absence. That's a younger Teet on the left, I think, and one of the boys must be Madis, who's above on the right.

Teet's father Vallo, a conductor like his brother, died five years later. Here they are at the momentous Tallinn meet-and-greet. The photographer whose name is printed on the back of the photos is Kalju Suur (address: K. Marxi 34-4, Tallinn USSR).

Other families of sorts were formed in the intense week of the festival. Needless to say I started as something of an outsider, an observer, as I was supposed to be, of the great western players working with Estonian young professionals in the Festival Orchestra, but thanks to a short meeting with top violinist Ben Baker at the East Neuk Festival, I got to talk further with him there and meet his cellist friend from Yehudi Menuhin School days, Jonathan Bloxham. One lunchtime at the pleasant bar that functioned as musicians' meeting place I also started up a conversation with pianist Sophia Rahman and her partner Andres Kaljuste. All four gave an uncannily perfect performance of Korngold's Suite for Piano Quartet (no harm reproducing another of Kaupo's pictures already used on The Arts Desk here).

The 15 would-be conductors using the junior of the two orchestras as a training-ground also seemed to get on well, so there's another family for you. Trust Neeme, who was sharing some of the training with Paavo and Leonid Grin, to be still instructing them in his farewell speech.

Invited guests had their own familial agendas. Fellow reporter on the best of all festival visits was my editor on the BBC Music Magazine, Olly Condy, who came with his wife Caroline and their totally adorable six-month-old baby Alice. Here they are at the aforementioned children's concert in which the youngest of the Järvis played. It was Alice's first concert and she beamed throughout it as usual.

She beamed especially, constantly, at me, which was very gratifying. I adore this very socialised and blithe young Condy. Here PR and friend Lucy Maxwell-Stewart and I are faking - but with pleasure, albeit happy to hand Alice back to full-time care - an alternative family shot on the beach after a delicious swim.

Alice even had her toes tickled and programme signed by Arvo Pärt, whose Swansong in the final Pärnu Festival Orchestra concert completely undid me in five minutes flat. Here he is during rehearsals with Paavo (also courtesy of Kaupo, I think).

The family outings to the seaside added an extra dimension to our time in Pärnu, Estonia's official 'summer capital' with the only major south-facing beach in the country. Mornings were spent swimming and lazing about, afternoons at rehearsals or discovering the local delights and evenings at several of the best concerts I've ever attended.

I was very grateful for the splendid exclusive tour we had around Pärnu's streets, parks and seafront given by a very delightful lady, teacher as well as guide Malle Tiidla. She'd been given a season ticket for all the festival concerts as a birthday present, so was glad to meet up with us at one of the concerts (here she is third from the left at the very spacious and foyer-handsome concert hall).

The tour lasted four hours - I have no idea if that had been the plan, but there were so many stops for babyphotos and we wanted to see so much that if she was on a tight schedule she didn't have the heart to say so.We began at the Tourist Office, which is in the handsome Town Hall of 1797 just along the street from the Catherine Church begun in 1764.

One of the many casualties of the Soviet occupation and Second World War combined was the town's main church, St Nicholas, which had been bombed but not so badly that it couldn't have been rebuilt; the Soviets, perhaps because the majority of its congregation had been German, razed it to the ground. That leaves in central position St Elizabeth, the spire of which is a feature of the old town.

The oldest building is the so-called Red Tower of the 15th century, originally used as a prison; currently neglected and unoccupied, one storey shorter and of course whitewashed.

Of the 17th century bastions built by the Swedes, the Tallinn Gate and grassy banks above a moat remain. By 1835 the Vallikääru Park had been created, and, re-landscaped, it now doubles as a harbour. The gate is now the only one of its kind left in the Baltic countries.

Just along the street from it is the home Functionalist architect Olev Siinmaa built for himself in 1933. He fled to Sweden 11 years later, leaving behind numerous examples of his work in Parnu.

Pärnu was once a major Hanseatic port on the route to Novgorod, but those days are long over; under the Soviets, the port was closed to the outside world and its status reduced to a fishing harbour. There isn't even much sign of that any more. Its bathing and convalescent attractions have remained constant since 1835, though, when what is now the de luxe Hedon Spa and Hotel was built. The wooden construction burnt down and was replaced by an odd neoclassical construction in 1927

but it's rather comfortable if ever so slightly blingy inside, and the southern facade almost on the beach is very different.

My favourite building here is the Kuursaal of the 1880s, where many popular entertainers played on both indoor and outdoor stages. There's a statue outside to composer-accordionist Raimond Valgre. Apparently songs of his should play when you sit on the bench, but I didn't hear any.

Inside the Kuursaal's vast space was deserted on a sunny afternoon

because everyone was out on the terrace. The waitresses here were supremely friendly, as elsewhere in Estonia, and as usual, one offered to take a group snap.

As for the food - simple, fresh - it was infinitely better than in any of the eateries we tried in town. There was care in presentation, too: dessert time.

The miles of white Baltic sand we had practically to ourselves on our bathing days; strongish winds had put people off, but the sea was warm even if one had to wade some distance out to be able to swim.

I made my way up via the historic Ladies' Beach in the company of Lucy the first full morning, but was left in no doubt that I could go no further than this on the second day.

Still, there were plenty of sandy accesses

and needless to say Alice was queen of the dunes.

Malle's tour took us back into town past the opulent Villa Ammende, a merchant's home from 1905 to 1927 when the family went back to Germany.

Now it's the other and most expensive of the de luxe hotels in town. I preferred the simpler, deliciously old-fashioned summer villas across the road, full of light, like the one where Anneli, down on a visit from Tallinn - more about our time there anon - stayed.

David Oistrakh loved it here - there's a plaque on the dacha where he stayed, apparently because he warmed to the Estonians' absence of antisemitism as well as to the town itself. This was always 'the west' for Soviet citizens.

The place is still apparently used as a summer home but there were no signs of occupation when we were there and I thought it ought to become an Oistrakh Museum, with at least a display of photos of the great violinist on holiday and performing here.

Shostakovich came here too - this priceless photo shows him with Neeme and Paavo some time in the late 1960s/early '70s. Unusual for him to be the jolliest looking person in the picture.

Our hotel was just around the corner, plain and comfortable; strictly speaking it was more a sanatorium full of old Finns who come here in droves. For festival musicians, it was the perfect place to concentrate on a huge amount of repertoire, somewhere with which I think we all fell in love. I'll go back with J next year, that's for sure.


Susan Scheid said...

David: So many touching aspects to this post, it's hard to know where to begin. I didn't, for example, know of Neeme Järvi's emigration and return, with his mother dying in the midst of it. The people of Estonia have been through so much. I suspect, on seeing all the sites there, I'd choose the Kuursaal as a favorite, too. While very different in aspect, at least from the photograph, it reminds me, in "feel," of the Loviisan Kappeli, where Sibelius and siblings used to perform trios. I look forward to your further report, particularly on those summer villas. The photograph of Järvi with Shostakovich stopped me in my tracks. Such a rich history there, such wonderful links in an ongoing chain.

David said...

I felt somewhat of an intruder on Neeme's visit back then to his mother's grave, but he wanted us all to come with him.

I wish we'd discovered the Kuursaal earlier - would have eaten there each lunchtime. Was hoping to get to Loviisa on the forthcoming trip to Finland, but I don't have enough time after the Lahti Festival has finished. Am crossing fingers for a visit to Sibelius's birthplace, Hameenlinna.

Susan Scheid said...

We didn't get to Hameenlinna, so do hope you can and will report. Know what you mean about spotting restaurants like the Kuursaal earlier. The Loviisan Kappeli was most appealing to look at, including the grounds, but if you ever do go to Loviisa, the place to go for lunch is Café Tuhannen Tuskan Kahvila, an absolute charmer, which we made the mistake of not searching out until our last day there.

David said...

And as we know good food is often not a high priority in Finland and Estonia - though I've eaten well in Helsinki, of course, and the fabulous Manna la Roosa in Tallinn is proof that a younger generation is taking more interest.