Ten years ago, on 4 June 2008, the orchestra that was to become the Baltic Sea Philharmonic gave its first ever concert, in the Latvian capital Riga. Under the baton of Estonian-born conductor Kristjan Järvi, the musicians of the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic performed Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony, a new commission – Burning Fiery Furnace by Niels Marthinsen, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Danish violinist Søren Elbæk, Latvian pianist Lauma Skride and Lithuanian cellist David Geringas. The ensemble would go on to repeat the programme some three months later in Peenemünde on the island of Usedom, at the Usedom Music Festival.
‘The atmosphere at both concerts was exhilarating,’ recalls Thomas Hummel, Director of the Usedom Music Festival and Executive Director of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. ‘Everyone involved had the feeling that something great was just beginning. The musicians of the orchestra, who came from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden, all embraced the idea that they weren’t just making great music together but were also being great neighbours.’
The new orchestra was born out of an idea from the Usedom Music Festival and sponsor Nord Stream AG – the operator of the natural gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea – to unite young musicians from all ten Baltic Sea countries, and engender through music a spirit of cooperation and harmony between people from a historically divided region. Ten years on, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic has become a movement for bringing people together, connecting communities from Norway to Russia. The youth ensemble that gave two concerts in 2008 is now an award-winning orchestra that tours throughout Europe and beyond, performing around a dozen concerts a year in some of the most prestigious venues, from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris to Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Thousands of young players from the Baltic Sea region, most aged between 20 and 30, have auditioned to play in the orchestra, with nearly 700 so far earning the opportunity. Under the dynamic leadership of Kristjan Järvi, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic is rewriting orchestral conventions – pioneering new concert experiences through the use of technology and design, and performing symphonic scores from memory. With its commitment to education and the environment, and its dedication to empowering musicians and inspiring audiences, the orchestra is set to take its message of unity and international understanding ever further in the years to come.
Highlights of the first ten years
Within just a few years of its launch, the young orchestra had established an international reputation. On the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the ensemble performed at the opening of the Council of Baltic Sea States summit in Stralsund, Germany, in 2012. A year later, the orchestra inaugurated the ‘Baltic Focus’ at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, one of the world’s largest classical music festivals. The orchestra’s successful international touring was paralleled by its burgeoning education programmes, ranging from the specialist coaching for its musicians to workshops for young conductors and composers, and concerts for schools. In 2013 the Baltic Sea Music Education Foundation was created to consolidate these activities and to develop a sustainable education strategy for the Baltic Sea region.
By 2014 the orchestra was selling out prestigious venues on tour, including the Berlin Philharmonie, and performing with world-class soloists such as Julia Fischer and Valentina Lisitsa. The ensemble’s impact as a symbol of international cooperation was recognised in 2015 with the award of the European Cultural Prize from the European Foundation for Culture ‘Pro Europe’. In 2016 the orchestra was renamed the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and toured with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. In the same year, the orchestra’s second album was released on Sony Classical – an orchestral version of Wagner’s The Ring, arranged by Henk de Vlieger.
The Baltic Sea Philharmonic made history in 2017 by becoming the first orchestra in the world to perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird from memory, setting in motion a new plan to play certain symphonic works by heart on future tours. The experience of performing The Firebird from memory was a liberating and inspirational one for many of the orchestra’s musicians, and Kristjan Järvi, who has always encouraged the players to be open and fearless in their music-making, says: ‘Musicians came up to me afterwards saying, “We want to memorise everything. We only want to play from memory from now on.” That is a brilliant attitude.’ Also in 2017 the orchestra pioneered a thrilling immersive concert experience for its nature-inspired ‘Waterworks’ tour, combining cutting-edge projection art with atmospheric sound and lighting design, in collaboration with Sunbeam Productions. By the start of 2018 the orchestra had performed for around 100,000 concert goers in 47 cities in 14 countries, and given nearly 100 concerts in ten years.
Soloists and collaborators
Some 24 soloists have performed with the orchestra since its first concert in Riga in 2008. Among them are world-class artists such as Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Jan Vogler, Martin Fröst and Alexander Toradze, and leading young soloists including Hyeyoon Park, Jan Lisiecki and Mikhail Simonyan. Guest conductors have included Kristjan Järvi’s father Neeme Järvi, and also Kurt Masur, who conducted the orchestra at the opening of the Usedom Music Festival in 2012 and again in 2013. Masur, who died in 2015 at the age of 88, played a vital role as peacemaker in Leipzig during protests against the East German regime in 1989, and later conducted the city’s Gewandhausorchester in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the official celebration of German reunification in 1990. For Kristjan Järvi, Masur’s role as a unifying voice in a divided Germany makes him an important personality in the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s history and identity: ‘He is one of the biggest heroes and role models we’ve been fortunate to have participate in our project. One of our clear missions is to unify East and West through music and culture, and to have Kurt Masur involved was a big stamp of approval, an endorsement that what we are doing is right.’