Fearless and free – The Baltic Sea Philharmonic is on a journey to open hearts and minds

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‘Flow’ is a word that Kristjan Järvi keeps coming back to when describing his work with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. For him, it sums up the ideal state of being for orchestral musicians: ‘It’s a shared creative energy, an unbreakable feeling of being together. It’s the freedom that comes when everyone is communicating and playing instinctively, with no fear or insecurities, when everybody is tapped into one flow.’

‘It’s a shared creative energy, an unbreakable feeling of being together.’ Kristjan Järvi

This idea of connectedness is central to ‘Waterworks’, with its music linking the Baltic Sea to the far-off waters of the Amazon. It is moreover the defining philosophy behind the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, in its mission to unite musicians and communities, and reconnect them with the environment. As Kristjan says: ‘We’re creating a movement that brings people together from Norway to Russia. The stronger we all are, the stronger we are as a region. Then we can set an example for the whole world.’

For ten years the Baltic Sea Philharmonic has been a beacon for unity in a historically divided region. Its story started in 2008 on the resort island of Usedom, off the northern edge of Germany. Thomas Hummel, the Director of the Usedom Music Festival, wanted to create a new multinational orchestra, and took the idea to Nord Stream AG, operator of the natural gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea. His proposal: what better way to reflect the cooperation between Baltic Sea nations than by bringing together the best young musicians from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden.

‘Right from the first concert of the newly inaugurated Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic, in Riga in 2008, it was clear that here was an orchestra with a powerful message’, says Thomas. Audiences felt it immediately, and politicians recognised its importance too. As the orchestra’s reputation spread, it began regular tours, and was soon playing at the most prestigious concert halls and festivals in Europe, and performing with the world’s finest soloists, from Julia Fischer and Valentina Lisitsa to Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. In 2012 and 2013 Kurt Masur conducted the orchestra at the Usedom Music Festival. Also in 2012, the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic performed at the Summit of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in Stralsund, on the invitation of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who praised the orchestra as ‘a compelling example of using music as a powerful medium for cooperation and integration across borders’. In 2015 its achievements were honoured with the prestigious European Culture Prize by the European Culture Foundation ‘Pro Europe’.

‘It was clear that here was an orchestra with a powerful message.’ Thomas Hummel

In 2016 the orchestra’s growing desire to connect people across the world and to make them reconnect with the environment led to a new phase of international touring and collaboration. Renamed the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, the orchestra performed in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Russia, on its ‘Baltic Sea Landscapes’ tour with pianist Alexander Toradze. The ‘Baltic Sea Discovery’ tour of Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Denmark and Germany featured collaborations with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. In the same year, Sony Classical released the orchestra’s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, arranged by Henk de Vlieger.

With its ‘Waterworks’ tour of Denmark and Germany in 2017, in collaboration with Sunbeam Productions, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic debuted a thrilling new concert experience, fusing music, light, sound design, visual art and fashion. Inspired by the life-giving power of water, ‘Waterworks’ featured a special version of Handel’s Water Music and celebrated the 80th birthday of seminal American composer Philip Glass with performances of his Violin Concerto
No. 2 and Aguas da Amazonia. Also in 2017, on its ‘Baltic Folk’ tour of Sweden, Germany and Italy, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic made history by becoming the first orchestra in the world to perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird entirely from memory. By the end of 2017, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic had given a total of 96 concerts since its inception in 2008, performing to more than 100,000 concert goers in 14 countries (the ten Baltic Sea states, Austria, Italy, France
and Switzerland).

The Baltic Sea Philharmonic began its tenth-anniversary touring season in July 2018 with a series of concerts at the prestigious Kissinger Sommer festival in Bad Kissingen, Germany. The orchestra performed ‘Waterworks’ and debuted a new programme, ‘Nordic Pulse’, featuring the world premiere of Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas’s Violin Concerto.

In September the orchestra toured ‘Nordic Pulse’ to Italy, Germany and Poland, celebrating 100 years of independence for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Poland with music by leading composers from all five nations. Building on the experience of playing The Firebird by heart, the musicians performed the entire second half of the programme, featuring works by Sibelius and Imants Kalniņš, from memory.

‘We’re creating a movement that brings people together’

The increasing international importance of the orchestra has been matched by the growth of its educational ambitions. Education and training have always been at the heart of the orchestra’s mission, and Kristjan, together with a team of international coaches, has worked intensively with the musicians to develop their professional skills and expand their musical horizons.
The creation in 2013 of the Baltic Sea Music Education Foundation consolidated a burgeoning education programme, which included school concerts and chamber music coaching, as well as workshops for young conductors and composers.

Underpinning all this training is the knowledge that today’s young generation will be the musicians and educators to inspire the next generation. Nowhere has this been more evident than with the orchestra’s three-year participation in Danish Radio’s groundbreaking ‘Into the Music’ project, which in 2015 began presenting symphonic concerts for thousands of schoolchildren from rural Denmark, many of whom had never experienced a live performance of orchestral music.

In 2017, on the Denmark leg of the ‘Waterworks’ tour, more than 3,500 children came to hear the Baltic Sea Philharmonic at its ‘Into the Music’ concerts in Copenhagen. Another 2,500 children heard the orchestra in Aarhus, one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2017. Danish Radio presenter Mathias Hammer hosted these school concerts, and said afterwards: ‘The Baltic Sea Philharmonic is playing on a level beyond that of any other young musicians’ orchestra I know. It’s so professional, but it’s also so full of energy and good ideas. And Kristjan Järvi is brilliant at bringing the atmosphere on stage out into the hall. I’ve never seen a conductor communicating so much with a young audience, allowing them to make noise, and to be a part of the concert.’

‘Into the Music’ was not the only part of the orchestra’s ‘Waterworks’ tour to focus on youth, however. Ahead of the final concert of the tour at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, Kristjan led a workshop with the orchestra and Mädchenchor Hamburg, a girls choir from the city, to prepare a special encore of Arvo Pärt’s Kuus kuus kallike (Lullaby Song). Choir member Celina Hunschok found the experience inspiring, and said: ‘Kristjan gave our version of the Estonian lullaby a meaning. Before the workshop it was a beautiful and simple lullaby, but his directions filled it with emotions. I was impressed by how well we adapted to his directions but also by how the orchestra immediately adapted to us. It did not feel like a first rehearsal together. The music instantly connected us all.’

The experience of performing in the Baltic Sea Philharmonic is a source of constant inspiration for the young musicians of the orchestra. Russian bassoonist and principal Arseniy Shkaptsov has been a member almost from the beginning, and says he keeps coming back because the spirit and energy of the ensemble are so special: ‘I have played in professional orchestras, and sometimes that just feels like work, like being a worker in a music-making factory. But the Baltic Sea Philharmonic gives me a spiritual and emotional experience. In this orchestra I find new emotions, new energy and new experiences, and I have so much fun too. I don’t get all this anywhere else.’

Anyone who watches the orchestra performing can see that the musicians are giving their all, and revelling in the music- making experience. As Dirk von Ameln, Chairman of the Baltic Sea Music Education Foundation, observes: ‘In the Baltic Sea Philharmonic you see young people who are dedicated and successful, but they also have fun. They are a lesson to us all, and also to industry. They prove that doing a job well can be the most fun you can have in life.’

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