Tuesday 28 July 2020

Love and joy at the 2020 Pärnu Music Festival

My good friend and visionary artist-photographer Kaupo Kikkas took so many inspired shots at this year's brilliantly successful festival in Estonia's summer capital, and I could only include a few in my Arts Desk eulogy. So to rekindle what seems as each day passes ever more like an unreal experience - that it all happened and that I got to go both feel miraculous - I thought I'd interweave his photos with my own from the time I spent along the eight-mile white sand bay and the river. These mostly come from the single day when I wasn't in town attending rehearsals or meeting friends, and I'll take them in order.

A heatwave was holding up for the first couple of days, and the main beach was packed - Estonians could do this, as within their country they've kept healthy and observed the lockdown as well as the border closings as prophylactics, rather than to stop the disease spreading further.

As a self-distancing foreigner, but by inclination anyway, I headed east to where the dunes begin to take over.

Now we'll do a three-by-three format. Over to the musicians: up top, the double-bass quartet, from left clockwise Regina Udod, Juliane Bruckmann, Angie Liang, Siret Lust. That in fact is the perfect disposition in terms of how the Estonian Festival Orchestra was originally conceived: two players from a top western orchestra (Bruckmann from Paavo's Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Liang a regular in the La Scala Orchestra, and based in Milan), two Estonians (though Siret now has, or had until the shutdown, quite a career playing in several London orchestras).

Paavo Järvi should now light the way. I was so impressed, when I watched the film of the new Tõnu Kõrvits work, To the Moonlight, by his clairvoyance which clearly guided this impressionistic dream-world. Kaupo has captured that here.

The undisputed star of the four concerts I heard was young Theodor Sink, and the work he played - Lepo Sumera's Cello Concerto really is a neglected masterpiece (see the Arts Desk review for more on that).

First night standing ovation. Should have really happened for the Sumera, but had to wait until the encores.

Beach 2 That baking morning, I wanted to swim, but first to do a circuit of the boardwalk around the eastern nature reserve (the western one is more secluded). Some of the cows who help to 'manage' the landscape were sheltering under a willow tree

while one was grazing the other side of the boardwalk.

The water's surface was covered with damselflies and dragonflies, but in flight they don't catch, so here's a broader perspective.

KK 2 From the chamber gala: a close up of two out of five in Hasenöhrl's much-snippeting arrangement/deconstruction of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel [Einmal Anders], both peerless in their solos: Emma Yoon and Alec Frank-Gemmill;

and the full ensemble, also featuring Juliane Bruckmann, Rie Koyama and Signe Sõmer, a real match for her fellow clarinettist in terms of personality.

Next came Maarika Järvi, taking over the violin line on flute, Giorgios Katsouris and Teet Järvi in Schubert's String Trio in B flat major:

Beach 3 My bathing spot, as far as you can get heading towards Latvia before the reeds take over.

The only snag is that while the waters of the bay are perfect for kids, you have to wade a long way out before you can swim, and even then the sandbanks rise in places. I actually walked back for most of the way in the shallow waters parallel to the beach, observing the cumulus clouds massing inland - a storm would not hit us until the next morning -

and looking fondly back over the expanse where nature truly takes over.

KK 3 More from the chamber gala: the super-elegant and friendly Triin Ruubel and Matt Hunt reprise their brilliant interpretation of Bartók's Contrasts, previously shared with my now very good friend Sophia Rahman - she had arranged a performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time with Matt, which the festival couldn't accommodate, so they did it up at the beautiful Arvo Pärt Centre on the Lohusalu Peninsula - but now with the star of the next day Olli Mustonen.

Top that? Well, nothing could, but the Mendelssohn Octet matched it. What came to mind as Florian Donderer led a performance of supernatural airborne grace was my friend Anthony Gardner's first novel, The Rivers of Heaven, describing in visionary terms the life of a child in a parallel world before it's born. Mendelssohn was very young when he wrote this, but the music still somes to come from somewhere else.

Especially striking here were the contributions of Eva Bindere and young Hans Christian Aavik, clearly the latest Estonian prodigy. Here they are playing in the EFO with Florian.

The other players are also outstanding: Mari Poll, Xandi van Dijk, Karin Sarv, Thomas Ruge and the very busy Sink.

Beach/river 3 Long evening concerts and revelry thereafter usually rule sunsets out. But this time I caught one late afternoon (ie 6.30-7.30) stroll out to the stone jetty at the west end of the beach and one sunset, simply because the adored Passion Cafe is too hugger-mugger inside for a Brit to risk spreading possible infection, and it soon got too cold to sit out (I did see the lovely host Maarika at the final concert, and amused her by hailing her in hybrid terms as 'Madame La Passione'. Adorable lady). Thus flotsam on the edge of the west-end nature reserve.

and where, beneath the board walk, the sand meets the reeds

with the view across the river to the wood factory and a bank of gulls.

KK 4 The final concert of the Järvi Academy Youth Symphony Orchestra featuring 12 conducting participants of the Academy Course reached the usual high standards in playing, alongside tellingly varied results from the conductors. Inevitable highlight was Berlin Philharmonic principal horn-player Stefan Dohr in Mozart's Third Horn Concerto (pictured here with young conductor Jaan Ots).

His Messiaen encore was stunning, his conducting not so (I've written about this on the Arts Desk feature). Xandi was just right, I think, for the tender lyricism of the Adagio in Dvořák's Sixth Symphony. I wish I'd been there for his earlier collaboration with Triin Ruubel and the Academy Sinfonietta in Erkki-Sven Tüür's Second Violin Concerto, "Angel's Share"; it's so impressive in the film. Here they are together.

As I wrote in the Arts Desk piece, it wouldn't be fair to choose a "winner" from the student conductors, though I was happy to note the huge improvement in the technique and presence of the delightful Nele Erastus. I used Kaupo's picture of her over there, so let's see former Prima Ballerina Maria Seletskaja in confident action (she first made her mark at last year's festival).

Beach/river 4 Now we're at my sunset stroll after the chamber concert, when the fading light was beckoning. The sun actually went down before I got to the mouth of the river - I hastily caught its last appearance.

This time the ducks which hang around this bank of the river - Eiders, I thought at first, but there was no evidence of the melancholy whooping - were more in evidence.

So out to the beach, with views across to the stone jetty and the headland with the solitary tree where the cattle usually graze.

KK 5 Many of Kaupo's best portraits were gathered at the rehearsal before the second EFO concert as well as its aftermath. How well he's captured the watchfulness, intelligence and humanity of the players. I love this shot of oboist Jose Luis Garcia Vegara.

Siret in action.

And of course the money shot of Olli Mustonen with keyboard lashes (best enlarged).

Beach/river 5 Out to sea,

across the river mouth

and towards the dunes.

KK 6 Paavo in action with the most joyous and also the most fine-tuned Mozart 39 I've ever heard,

Matt sharing a joke with Signe - two clarinettists of great character - with Maarika and Paul Suss in front of them.

And a final salute between players who would so love to have hugged and kissed at the end as they usually do.

Beach/people 6 At the west end, before the mosquitoes got too much.

Plus two happy people pics of my own: interval drinks with Jonathan Bloxham, erstwhile cellist in the orchestra, conducting trainee and now well into his international career as a conductor, Alec Frank-Gemmill, new principal conductor of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra Olari Elts and his son;

and just before the last concert I attended, lifeblood of festival admin and former contrabassoonist in the orchestra Tea Tuhkur - now heading to a new job with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra - and Maarit Kangron, cellist and agent with IMG Artists, staying in Estonia for the foreseeable future.

A final sunset from the concert-hall windows in the interval

and sunrise from my hotel room on the morning of departure.

One last shot from Kaupo, of Olli Mustonen and Matt after their Bartók. Roll on 2021, but I think we've all had our vision.

Monday 13 July 2020

In search of peonies, ending back at Kew Gardens

Near the end of my '50 days of London spring' post, an early peony, of the yellow tree variety, made an appearance. Finding peak peony season in my favourite haunts wasn't so easy. The patches I knew from previous years, in Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden, were inaccessible (and in any case I'd failed to renew my CPG membership in high dudgeon at the forced exile of the wonderful Tangerine Dream Cafe - now rehoused in the French Institute and along the Kings Road, but it's not the same).

Where to find these elusive and short-life beauties? I pedalled up to Regents Park again on 15 May: if it excellend in roses, it would surely yield peonies? Sadly not, though I still had a wonderful time. An elusive wren was skipping around between the rose bushes in Queen Mary's Garden, and there were already a few choice blooms, though the best was still to come,

and some very exotic irises were to be found in the planting of one of the eastern walks

as well as plenty of bee activity on alliums purple and white.

I cycled north and then walked along the southern perimeter of the zoo, Now that the elephants and bears have gone, there's less than ever to see, but if you head down to the fence midway you can watch a Colobus monkey whooping and swinging about.

Probably the farthest point I've reached in my bike rides since the Richmond Park excursion was the canal where it bifurcates the zoo - the Snowdon Aviary is such a fine piece of work.

But I digress. I first sighted peonies where I least expected, on 17 May, by the south gate of Old Brompton Cemetery. Some imaginative planting has been going on, yet to properly bed in, and these specimens were part of it. Probably I could checklist them for you from a lovely volume I was once given as a birthday present, Peonies: The Imperial Flower by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, but what's in a name?

Next stop, Holland Park on 19 May, though I had no idea where peonies might be found there. Exciting, then, to find a plant in the formal gardens with buds that suggested they might burst in less than a week.

In fact that one took longer, though there was always plenty of bee action on the Kniphofia or red-hot pokers behind,

and meanwhile I discovered more in a kind of meadow in front of the ruined house. Normally this whole area would be under canvas for the Opera Holland Park season, but it marks instead a strange no-man's land between the formal gardens and the big green that slopes down to the former Commonwealth Institute.

Though Holland Park was the place I visited most during this time - after classes, I could pedal up there for a quick peony-check before supper - Chiswick House Gardens hit the highest watermark of late spring/early summer evening lushness.No peonies that I could find on 20 May - I did less than a week later, as you will see - but the alliums in the avenue leading down from the camellia greenhouse were buzzing with bees

and the moorhen who had lost some of her first batch now still had one chick making its way

but also turned out to be sitting on six eggs - I hope she had better luck this time. On the last occasion when I was there, after heavy rain, the nest had been dispersed.

Quite a few peonies were, however, to be found on the way there and back in a patch on the corner of Chiswick Mall and the street where it later turned out our friend Cally had just bought a cottage.

Meanwhile, back in Holland Park on the 24th, the buds had started to open, but weren't as far advanced as I had thought

but in the neighbouring bed, spectacular things were happening. The pic up top is part of that, as are these.

Further south, in the beds around the pond where a heron had perched (see earlier post), irises of all colours were flourishing,

and one of the peacocks (ditto) decided to complete a pretty picture.

Back at Chiswick House Gardens on the 28th, I found peony patches further up the walk that leads to the glasshouses; I'd always turned off into the Italian gaden before I got this far.

The roses between the mossy urns were at their peak, and enhanced by foxgloves.

That was one heavenly evening, and a high Thames tide at one end of Chiswick Mall - subsequently my favourite spot of the entire river - completed the perfection.

On the 29th I cycled southwards, to explore more of the interior of Battersea Park. No peonies that I found, but bottlebrush was thriving in the wonderful Paultons Square,

another heron was wading in a secluded spot no the park lake

and I discovered for the first time the bee-friendly planting of the garden centre on the ring road (bicycles, joggers and pedestrians only).

In the back yard, poppies flourished singly (Papaver orientalis, not doing much this year)

and in pairs - here today, gone tomorrow, but storing up seeds thereafter for more random manifestations -

Finally, Kew Gardens reopened just in time to catch the very end of peony season. We were there on the second day of timed visits, Tuesday 2 June, arriving at 4pm and staying until closing time. I knew where to head for the peonies, but first was a first, the tulip trees (the lyrically named Tulipifera liriodendron) on the north side of the Palm House lake in flower

Waterlilies were in bloom in front of the Princess of Wales Conservatory (shut, of course, like the other glass houses), and plenty of orange poppies as well as big agaves

 though those were capped by the one in flower to the left of the Alpine House. Couldn't this be Arizona?

So missing orchid hunts in the country - Deborah van der Beek tells me there's been a big flourishing near them in Lacock - but pleased to see this cluster reintroduced at Kew.

Of the peony colony, the reds were almost all finished flowering, but the whites continued to flourish

I've never seen this zone of the gardens so lush. That, the unusual loudness of the birdsong and the very few people around made this seem like the most exotic of trips, as if we'd gone on a major holiday abroad. Lupins in the backyard didn't put on much of a show this year, but here's a bunch foregrounding the Temple of Aeolus rather nicely (better in reality than they've emerged here).

I can't name the tall creatures here

but bees love them.

The rocky beds leading to the Alpine House were still rich in late-spring specimens like this exquisite iris

We took a breather in the warm sunshine (the last for some days, as it turned out, and the end of the settled weather which made this, ironically under pandemic circumstances, the most beautiful spring in England I can remember) just inside the gate of the walled garden around the house. More bees, this time on the miracel-stemmed Eryngia which I've never succeeded in maintaining out back.

Here, too, were white/pink peonies aplenty in the lush bed on the other side of the lawn.

Left J to walk off down the Spanish chestnut avenue to the Kew Green gate and further excurted to Kew Palace, lush with lavender behind.

Then it was back along the splendid herbaceous walk, rich in alliums

and around the Palm House lake to see how the gunnera had come on

to collect my bike at the main entrance. We'd be back in less predictable weather for my birthday picnic - four of us socially distanced at a bench in a sylvan glade - in mid-June. The displays are past their prime now, and my daily routine less regular, but blissful summer weather is back.