The Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s new Shostakovich recording brought together 108 locked-down musicians in 18 countries. Violinist Dita Immermane shares her experience of this ambitious project

On 9 May, Latvian violinist Dita Immermane was supposed to be on stage at the Berlin Konzerthaus, performing Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’, with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and Kristjan Järvi. The concert was planned as part of Music for Peace, an international project to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. But like so many other concerts around the world, the performance was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Music for Peace instead premiered on 8 May as an online production. Its centrepiece was a virtual orchestra recording by 108 Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians, who, in lockdown in 18 countries across Europe and elsewhere in the world, made audio and video recordings of a 20-minute excerpt from the first movement of Shostakovich’s epic symphony. These individual recordings were combined into one video, which is now available to watch on our YouTube channel. Dita was one of the 108 players who recorded their parts at home. Here she describes what it was like to be part of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s first ever virtual orchestra project:

‘I had been in lockdown in Latvia for three weeks when I got an email from the orchestra about the online Music for Peace project. I knew immediately that I wanted to take part. After a few weeks’ break from active working life, the opportunity came just at the right time, and I was excited about being able to prepare something fresh again.

Being part of a virtual orchestra was entirely new for me, and I had no idea what to expect. So it was good to receive very clear, easy-to-follow instructions about how to make our audio and video recordings, what lighting was needed, where to stand and what to wear (concert dress code). We only had a few days to prepare and record our parts, and in the beginning I was quite worried about how I could make that one perfect recording. The audio and video each had to be recorded in a single take, and although the first half of the 20-minute Shostakovich excerpt had some pages in the score where I wasn’t playing a single note, there were also parts where it was easy to make a slip, which meant rerecording the whole extract.

We had a reference track to play along to – a recording conducted by Kristjan – which gave me a bit of a feeling that I was actually playing together with other musicians. Sometimes I found myself wishing the conductor was in the room, though, as there were certain musical phrases, and some passages with accelerando or ritenuto, that were not so easy to match with the reference track, and those are the kinds of moments when it’s so much better with all the musicians together on stage, when we are able to look at each other and communicate. A virtual orchestra can’t replace this feeling, and so I can’t wait for the moment when we can make music together physically again.

As I was working on the recordings, I had a feeling that the Baltic Sea Philharmonic had performed Shostakovich 7 before. But we hadn’t. I’ve been playing with the orchestra since 2016, and it has special characteristics, just as other orchestras have their own character. While I was playing my part, I imagined how the Baltic Sea Philharmonic would play certain phrases, and I kind of heard in my mind how Kristjan would ask us to play them and think about them. I had such a strong feeling that we’d played the piece before, and when I confirmed with other musicians that we hadn’t, it made me realise just how united I feel with members of the orchestra, even if we don’t have the possibility to physically be together.

One of the hardest things to get right with the audio recording was one of the most important requirements – the absence of background noise. The days were very sunny and warm in Latvia when I was working on the recording, and there were often motorcyclists taking rides right outside my apartment window. I found the best part of the day for recording was in the early morning or late evening, because there were no distracting noises. I’m grateful to my neighbours, who didn’t complain when I had to repeat recordings. And I’m also grateful to my fiance, who as a hobbyist photographer made the video recording part easy.

I was really impressed with the final, full-orchestra video. The sound especially was great, and I would love to do more videos like this. I think it’s important that in these circumstances we remain united as an orchestra. For me, the project was a big motivation to continue to practise, as without goals it can be easy to start breaking your practice routine. Another bonus, and I think my fellow Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians will say the same, is that after such intensive days of recording I’ve now memorised the first movement of Shostakovich 7! Given that the orchestra frequently performs whole concerts from memory, I hope we’ll be able to play this music by heart on stage sometime in the future.’

Enjoy the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony  as virtual orchestra: