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Steven Mead: leaving on a jet plane

Wednesday 18 August, 2021

In normal times, euphonium virtuoso Steven Mead is used to jetting from country to country, performing to audiences around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic brought Steven’s country hopping to a temporary halt – but he recently jumped back into the saddle, enjoying a busy week in Estonia. Besson artist Steven reflects on a fulfilling week in Viljandi.

 

Around a year ago, I was in Viljandi, Estonia, at the request of a good friend of mine, Bert Langelerr, who I’ve known for more than 35 years. Bert has established himself as a wonderful brass teacher, band conductor, organiser and motivator in the Estonian music scene. He had invited me to give a low brass workshop and on the first day, I was introduced to a lady who was directing a composition workshop with around 20 young composers. She asked me whether I would have time to make a presentation to the students about the euphonium, which I did with pleasure.

That was the beginning of the planning that went into the last 10 days that I’ve enjoyed once again in Viljandi and subsequently on the island of Hiiumaa, to the west of the Estonian mainland. I’m delighted to say that a year on, I was presented with 12 new works for euphonium, accompanied variously with piano, cello and alto saxophone, so I was combining another low brass workshop with long sessions with the composers. Some of the works were not completed on arrival and some were completed just one day before I gave the their premieres in a beautiful church in the centre of the town.

This was an incredibly rewarding week, getting to know these young composers aged between 13 and 24. They had questions for me and I had questions for them regarding the music and their intentions. We had many rehearsals, some going on late into the evening. I had two full days with them and then three full days with the low brass musicians; some days were a combination of both. The final concert was an absolute joy and to see the looks on the faces of these young composers as their music was performed to a large and appreciative audience was a real treat for me. Some of the works were incredibly difficult, with zero rest for the soloist. Some were beautiful and lyrical and nearly all of the works had absolutely no cliché elements. Several of the audience had travelled more than two hours from the capital city of Tallin, such was the interest in this concert. It meant we ended that first part of my trip on a real high, with 12 new works for euphonium successfully premiered. 

The low brass ensemble consisted broadly of the same performers as last year. The brass world in Estonia is still quite limited, with relatively few brass teachers – but they are doing sterling work. Students acquitted themselves extremely well in the concert and their confidence was definitely up on last year, which bodes well for the future. We are already planning next year’s workshop.

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Following that, I was invited to travel with Bert to the island of Hiiumaa, an hour’s boat trip on a ferry. From the concert venue in Viljandi it was a two-and-a-half hour car journey to the coast, then we had a brief rest in the hotel before we boarded the ferry at 6am. This was due to be a rest day for me but by noon, I was rehearsing a couple of solos with the Estonian Conductors’ Orchestra, whereupon it asked me if I would like to perform with the orchestra at 2pm and 7pm the same day. If you can believe it, I was too tired to say no!

Thirteen Estonian wind orchestras had travelled to the island for this annual festival that showcases wind music to the whole island at many different venues. I quickly embraced this spontaneous moment and enjoyed very much playing firstly at an outdoor venue at 2pm, and then at a large, converted boathouse in the evening where all the bands had converged. Despite all 13 bands being present, there was almost no drinking of alcohol until the entire event was over, whereupon musicians would celebrate with their own bands at their own private venues. The result was a joyous, non-competitive occasion where each band listened to all the other bands. The following morning at 11am, the full massed bands, consisting of more than 200 musicians, converged at the main piazza in the biggest town on the island, Kärdla.

The overnight rain had miraculously cleared and a good sized audience enjoyed the 75-minute programme. I was again asked to perform my two solos, plus a very beautiful Estonian hymn mercifully accompanied by the Conductors’ Orchestra rather than the giant massed bands. The musicians then stayed around, taking photographs together and chatting with friends in other bands, before they all headed en masse to the ferry boat for the journey back to the mainland.

I absolutely enjoyed this whole experience and I feel I’m beginning to understand the Estonian culture as well as their love of playing in bands. There are no brass bands yet in Estonia but believe me, we are working on a new project that hopefully will come into fruition in one year’s time. The people were extraordinarily friendly and I would recommend a trip to the mainland, and certainly to the island of Hiiumaa, which I am told has many resemblances to the Scottish Highlands.

 

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