Baltic Folk – Set a world on fire

Gotland is in many ways the perfect place to start our new tour. Sweden’s largest island – and the largest island completely encompassed by the Baltic Sea – is a spectacle of nature, with picturesque beaches, lakes and rocky outcrops. The Baltic Sea Philharmonic has always been sensitive to the environment, and on Gotland it’s impossible not to feel deeply connected to nature. Visby, where the orchestra will be rehearsing for five days leading up to its opening concert on 19 August, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the best-preserved medieval cities in northern Europe, it was the main centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic from the 12th to the 14th century. It’s also where the idea for  the Baltic Sea Philharmonic was born ten years ago in a concert of a project orchestra called the Baltic Youth Orchestra . So Visby is part of our history too.

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After Sweden we travel to Germany, to perform at one of the country’s most prestigious classical music festivals, the Rheingau Music Festival in Wiesbaden, on 20 August. The ‘Baltic Folk’ tour then concludes in Merano, northern Italy, where our performance on 23 August will open the Merano Music Festival. We’re delighted that these two festivals are welcoming us back after our previous visits in 2014 (Wiesbaden) and 2011 (Merano).

The repertoire for ‘Baltic Folk’ has a strong Russian focus, and sets the lyricism and nostalgia of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 alongside the fairy-tale magic of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which the orchestra performs in its 1945 orchestral suite version. The programme also includes the contemplative, hymn-like Swansong by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, an orchestration of his earlier choral composition Littlemore Tractus.

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For its performance of The Firebird, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic will make a daring shift from orchestral conventions by playing the work entirely from memory. For Kristjan Järvi, this is not so much a technical exercise or mental feat, but more an evolution in how musicians communicate. ‘Performing The Firebird from memory is all about chemistry and communication,’ he says. ‘It should feel like the players are improvising music that they have known for a long time.’

It’s rare for an orchestra to perform a work completely from memory, let alone a large-scale piece such as Stravinsky’s The Firebird. But that’s exactly what the Baltic Sea Philharmonic will do on the ‘Baltic Folk’ tour. So why do it, and how does it benefit the players? Violinist Jan Bjøranger, a long-time string coach with the orchestra, who works from memory with his own chamber group 1B1 in Stavanger, Norway, as well as with other ensembles, explains: ‘Performing by heart forces an orchestra to spend more time learning a piece, until players reach the point that they truly embody the music. So it’s about empowering musicians, to look upon themselves as artists rather than workers on a music production line. To reach this higher goal, though, you have to accept that you might make mistakes, and so the process is also about getting rid of the fear of failure.’

While playing from memory might take some musicians out of their comfort zone, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic players absolutely identify with the sense of empowerment. As clarinettist Alexey Mikhaylenko says: ‘When you play by heart, it’s like you’re writing the music. It belongs to you. You’re not reading, you’re acting.’ When everyone is confident working from memory, it opens up many possibilities for performance, adds Jan: ‘You can work with lights, you can spread the orchestra out closer to the audience, you can experiment with sonorities and placement of instruments. There are so many aspects to experiencing the music emotionally and intellectually if the orchestra is able to spend more time on it.’

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Soloists of the tour

Joining the orchestra to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, a work that Kristjan calls ‘the most nostalgic, the most Russian-themed concerto ever’, will be the 15-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, one of the most exciting talents of his generation.

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