The Baltic Sea Philharmonic and Kristjan Järvi brought the fresh sounds of contemporary Nordic music to a roasting hot Germany and Austria on their ‘Midnight Sun’ tour from 26 June to 2 July. Joined by Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen and special guests Mick and Angeelia Pedaja – singer-songwriters from Estonia – the orchestra began its tour at Berlin’s Philharmonie on 26 June, the city’s hottest day of the year so far. The ensemble then showcased its cool Nordic soundscapes in an equally balmy Ossiach, in southern Austria, on 29 June, with a concert at the Carinthian Music Academy. The closing concert in Hamburg on 2 July, at a sold-out Elbphilharmonie, was doubly cool, with the heatwave in northern Europe having receded in the face of the orchestra’s breezy Baltic sounds.
A special programme, uniquely presented
‘Midnight Sun’ captured the magical atmosphere of a Nordic midsummer, and was inspired by the phenomenon of 24-hour daylight in the summer months above the Arctic Circle. Six pieces, including Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and works by Pēteris Vasks, Arvo Pärt, Kristjan Järvi and Max Richter, made for a richly varied programme. The way the Baltic Sea Philharmonic presented this music was truly original: the pieces were interspersed with songs by Mick Pedaja, who was partnered by the full orchestra, ambient electronics, and his wife Angeelia on vocals; and the musicians performed the whole two-hour programme from memory, with no breaks.
Light and joy in Berlin
The Berlin premiere of ‘Midnight Sun’ mesmerised the Philharmonie audience from the very beginning, as violinists from the orchestra emerged from around the auditorium, sustaining a single unison tone on their instruments as they slowly converged on the stage. As Matthias Noether for the Berlin Morgenpost wrote, ‘It is rare in such a symphony concert that nobody can tell what is happening in those first moments, and that’s refreshing.’ The sustained tone morphed into the limpid string textures of Vasks’s Lonely Angel, with soloist Mari Samuelsen sending her line soaring above the orchestra. The Norwegian violinist also starred in performances of Richter’s Dona Nobis Pacem, Pärt’s Fratres and Kristjan’s Aurora.
Colourful dynamic lighting enhanced the musical atmosphere, and in Aurora the illuminations echoed the dancing lights of the piece’s inspiration, the aurora borealis. In the words of the Berlin Morgenpost, Kristjan as conductor ‘moved almost like a pop star at the centre of these coloured lights’, while Elias Pietsch in the Tagespiegel Berlin likened the maestro to ‘a goblin, jumping across the stage and whipping up more and more energy from his protégés. Cue a wildly successful interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, with the orchestra kindling a veritable musical storm.’ The same reviewer praised the musicians’ joy of playing, saying that ‘This probably also has a lot to do with playing by heart: due to the absence of music stands there is movement on stage, the musicians interact with each other, they look at each other a lot – the interplay is so alive.’
Acclaimed finale in Hamburg
The orchestra’s closing performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird drew cheers and standing ovations in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Joachim Mischke from the Hamburger Abendblatt was particularly impressed by the young musicians’ interpretation: ‘Keeping Stravinsky’s high-octane score from crashing under its own weight is no easy feat for an orchestra, let alone one with all the notes in front of the players’ noses. But by heart, like the rest of the almost two-hour, uninterrupted programme? As a kind of story ballet, in which groups of instruments or individuals wander across the stage, in which they dance in rhythm and the concertmaster takes off her pumps in the midst of all this excess energy? This is clearly a different league.’
Behind the scenes, and next steps
Ahead of the ‘Midnight Sun’ tour the 63 musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic met for six intensive rehearsal days in Vlotho. After a public dress rehearsal in the small East Westphalian town, the orchestra launched into a week of touring that involved travelling 2,780km and performing to a total audience of more than 4,000 people. The Berlin leg of the tour included a special Talent Day during which the orchestra’s principal musicians led auditions of around 30 young players, all of whom were seeking opportunities to join the Baltic Sea Philharmonic on future tours.
The orchestra’s next tour, ‘Divine Geometry’, is only a couple of months away. Once again, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and Kristjan Järvi will be presenting an exciting new programme, this time juxtaposing Baroque masters with giants of American minimalism. US pianist Simone Dinnerstein will join the orchestra to perform a concerto by Philip Glass, and the German premiere of a major new work by Steve Reich is one of the highlights of a tour that will feature performances at the Merano Music Festival on 20 September and the Usedom Music Festival on 21 September.