Our ‘Baltic Folk’ adventure began on the Swedish island of Gotland, with six days of rehearsals ahead of the opening concert in Visby on 19 August. Gotland, a stunningly picturesque island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, was an inspirational place in which to work on our folk-inspired programme of Arvo Pärt’s Swansong, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird (in its 1945 orchestral suite version). Fifteen-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, one of the most exciting talents of his generation, joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninoff, and the orchestra welcomed back strings coach Jan Bjøranger to help prepare and fine-tune what would be one of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s most adventurous undertakings to date, and indeed a world first – performing The Firebird entirely from memory.
When the moment of truth arrived and the musicians came out to play the Stravinsky in the second half of the opening concert – most of them remaining standing as all but a handful of the music stands had been removed – the stage was set for something quite magical. ‘It was an amazing feeling, and very liberating,’ said percussionist Mathias Matland. ‘With the stands gone, you can see what everyone is doing, and you’re much more connected with everyone on stage. Suddenly, everything is more together.’ For Kristjan Järvi, the results were equally striking. ‘Not only was performing The Firebird this way creating history. It was also incredibly empowering,’ he said. ‘It was a great achievement for all of the musicians, to break through their limitations, to cast aside their doubts and fears, and to immerse themselves in a realm of possibilities and freedom.’
The orchestra capped the evening with encores by Sibelius and Gene Pritsker, both of which were also performed from memory. Audience member Elayne Chapman enthused afterwards on Facebook: ‘Amazing performance, I was blown away! First time ever that I’ve seen an orchestra play an entire piece from memory… and you guys did three! Bravo!’
After Visby, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic performed in Wiesbaden’s Kurhaus as part of the prestigious Rheingau Music Festival. The orchestra’s thrilling interpretation of The Firebird that night drew the following praise in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: ‘The interaction between the players worked out amazingly smoothly in the rhythmically difficult work. The Russian fairytale about the fight between good and evil was given a vivid, multi-faceted performance.’
Alexander Malofeev was also commended for bringing a youthful freshness to one of the most nostalgic of all piano concertos. Looking back on his collaboration with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, the young soloist said: ‘I had heard a lot about this unique orchestra and Kristjan’s groundbreaking approach to performing, and I was looking forward to experiencing them first-hand. Kristjan has his own spectacular way of involving the audience in the emotional experience, and I was happy to be in the middle of this magic. I also loved performing with the musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, who are true professionals with a strong sense of team spirit.’
Our ‘Baltic Folk’ tour ended in Italy, with a sold-out concert at the Merano Music Festival. The tour itself may have been among our shorter adventures, but with the international travel it was certainly an intense experience, and what the musicians achieved, especially with their memorised performances of The Firebird, marked out ‘Baltic Folk’ as another landmark success for the Baltic Sea Philharmonic.