Anniversary reflections

We asked Kristjan Järvi, Thomas Hummel and Dr Dirk von Ameln to look back at the first ten years of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and share their memories and highlights, as well as their aspirations for the future. Kristjan is the orchestra’s Founding Conductor and Music Director. Thomas is the orchestra’s Executive Director and also Artistic Director of the Usedom Music Festival. Dirk is Chairman of the Board of the Baltic Sea Music Education Foundation.

What was the idea behind the creation of the ensemble in 2008?

Thomas Hummel Creating the orchestra was a process in itself. The Usedom Music Festival had been working with different youth orchestras from the Baltic Sea region, such as the youth orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and an orchestra of young players from Finland called Vivo. We decided with Nord Stream, a company established at that time to plan and build a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea, that we wanted to jointly do a regional project, and our first idea was to form an orchestra of music academy students from just the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This Baltic Youth Orchestra gave a concert with cellist David Geringas at the Almedalen Week in Visby, on the island of Gotland, in June 2007.

From this starting point, the next step was to create an orchestra from all the ten Baltic Sea countries, which was the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic. We were all excited about the idea of spreading out across the region, and involving young musicians from more countries. Our challenge was that we had to bring everything together for two concert dates in 2008: 4 June in Riga on the occasion of the summit of the Baltic Sea states, and 21 September when the orchestra would open the Usedom Music Festival. So we really needed an inspirational conductor to pull this off. Kristjan had a lot of concerts in his schedule that year but happened to be free on those two days. With him on board we were able to make those first two concerts happen.

The vision of growing into an ensemble with international tours that we have today was not there at the start. In the beginning the main idea was to bring young people together. At the 2008 Usedom Music Festival we also initiated a Youth Forum involving high school students from Denmark, Poland and Germany. They came to the orchestra’s concert and got to experience great music.

Dirk von Ameln I had the pleasure of attending the concert in Gotland in 2007 with the young musicians from the three Baltic States. At that time I was the Permitting Director of Nord Stream AG and our approach was to become a good neighbour in the region. We were sponsoring environmental and scientific projects, but we also wanted to do something cultural. Those first concerts were a big success: people could see that here were young musicians from different countries working together and contributing to society in a very positive way. That was our message, the idea we wanted to share.

Kristjan Järvi When I became involved in 2008 we only had two and a half months to put together an orchestra for the first concert in Riga. For the concert programme, we didn’t just want traditional repertoire, we wanted to do something different. Indeed, we did a world premiere – a commission from Danish composer Niels Marthinsen, Burning Fiery Furnace. Everything came together so quickly and I think we were extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and to have a sponsor who was willing to take the germ of an idea that emerged in Gotland, and then expand it into something more substantial. After the first two concerts I was just eager to know what we were going to do next. I thought, ‘This is too good to be a one-off!’

What are your memories of the first concerts in 2008? What was the atmosphere like in the orchestra and in the audience?

TH The atmosphere was terrific. Everyone had the feeling that something great was starting. And that feeling was there in Riga and also in Usedom, where we had young people coming together for the Youth Forum and listening to the music. The orchestra played Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, and also Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with soloists from Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania – violinist Søren Elbæk, pianist Lauma Skride and cellist David Geringas. The musicians clearly shared in the enjoyment of making great music together, and understood that this was also an opportunity to be great neighbours and learn from one another. That’s what came across to me in the rehearsals, too, and it was a moving experience for me.

KJ Yes, right from the beginning this project was about creating a community through music. The players are an extension of all the different communities and nationalities of the Baltic Sea region. The orchestra is all about the people of the region, and the primary goal is to unify people, and to create a powerful symbol of unity.

DvA For me, the excitement and energy that comes off the players and jumps out into the auditorium is one of the defining things about the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. It was there in those early concerts and comes through strongly today.

What have been your highlights from the first ten years?

KJ I always say my highlight is the last thing we did. Every year’s a highlight, and every year has many highlights. I can’t really say that one concert or one project is more special than another. It’s like seeing a baby grow up: it’s wonderful all the way along.

TH It’s certainly been an incredible progression over the last 10 years. To think we started just in Riga and Usedom, and now we’ve spread out beyond the Baltic Sea region, and toured to Italy, Switzerland, Austria and France, and this year we’re going to the Middle East. Being able to work with the same conductor so consistently for so many years has been fantastic. It was amazing, also, that we were able to have Kurt Masur conduct the orchestra on two occasions at the Usedom Music Festival.

KJ Kurt Masur was one of the biggest heroes and role models we’ve had the honour and fortune to work with in the orchestra. Our project is about unifying people, and he was instrumental in unifying voices from the East and West in Germany, so for me, having him involved was like a big stamp of approval, an endorsement that what we’re doing is right.

DvA I remember some very special concerts, one of them at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in 2014. When the main programme ended, an usher from the concert hall brought down a walking frame for an old lady who was sitting in front of me. Then the encores came and people in the audience were standing up, and this lady stood up and pushed away the frame, raised her arms and clapped her hands. She was so excited by the young musicians, and it was so inspiring to see how that spark went over, and how she just cast aside her frame.

Which of the orchestra’s achievements are you most proud of?

TH I’m very proud of what we’ve created, the contacts between communities that we’ve made, and where we’ve got to in just ten years, especially with all the recent developments such as performing from memory and with light and projection art. There has been a lot of progress. Other organisations might have taken 20 or 30 years to come to this point.

KJ Many orchestras take big jumps organisationally or creatively, but they don’t have a strategic vision or a grand plan. We have a grand plan which is about constantly empowering and developing our musicians, but that plan changes according to current influences, such as geopolitical and social influences but also influences from different musical styles and genres. That’s why we’re doing things like performing with lights and playing from memory, and doing these things give us a unique, singular identity as an orchestra.

We’ve developed great partnerships. The Usedom Music Festival is a partner, and my production company Sunbeam Productions is a partner. People see us now as a network, not just one orchestra but a network of like-minded thinkers. This approach will gain us more partners in the future. We’re also expanding our geographical reach, touring beyond Europe. We hope to go to more countries, to the US and Asia, because the word is spreading about us. And why is it spreading? Because we’re consistent, we have a vision and a strategy, and we’re constantly developing and growing.

DvA If there is a landmark achievement for me, it is the orchestra winning the European Cultural Prize in 2015. But in another sense, when I look back, the orchestra was a start-up, and we have developed it into a well-working entity. It’s organised and efficient but we have managed to create a framework that allows for creativity; it’s not a rigid organisation. It’s still very much open to allow new things to happen and changes to take place, and for things to be done differently. And that may be one of our biggest achievements.

What has the orchestra not done yet that you would like it to do?

TH We talk a lot, together with Kristjan, about the next steps. We don’t want to do the same things as other orchestras. Going on tour and doing ten concerts is good but we’re looking at how we might extend our stays in certain cities. It would be great if we could base ourselves somewhere for a few days, and bring a special vibe to that place, and make the people there feel that they simply have to come and experience what we are doing. And if we can do that not just in European cities but in other parts of the world too, and thus carry the unifying spirit of the Baltic Sea far and wide, that would be wonderful.

KJ Thomas is right about this vision. When we go and play in a city, we’re not changing the environment, we’re creating the environment. Our message to the people of that city is, ‘Even though this orchestra is international and is made up of musicians from all across the Baltic Sea region, it is something singularly for your community. We will come into your community, and connect with you and spend time with you, and show you a world of possibilities through music and culture, and through our education and outreach projects, such as the school concerts we do.’ So we go into a community which we may not know much about, and they enter a fresh world which we bring to them. There is so much potential impact from that experience. For me, I actually can’t think of a better project that I have done in my life.

Do you think that being a voice of international understanding, a movement for bringing people together, is more important now that it was ten years ago?

DvA My answer to that is unfortunately yes. When we started out, there was some tension between the West and the East, with the Georgian crisis and the 2008 war in South Ossetia. But the situation stabilised and improved. Now, however, we are back to a world where barriers are put up, and not just psychological barriers but also physical barriers. So it is even more important to have an entity that overcomes barriers, breaks down borders, and tells the story of a united community. We will continue to do our bit to improve the situation.

KJ Most political analysts will say that relations between Russia and America have never been as bad as they are now. Even when they were bad in the Cold War, at least then everybody knew the rules of the game. No good comes of such tension today, but if there’s one community where Russia’s not going to be excluded it’s our community – the community of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic.

What do you hope that Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians will learn from their time in the orchestra and take through into their professional lives?

TH We’ve always encouraged openness and fearlessness in our musicians, telling them that nothing is impossible. When we first talked about playing The Firebird from memory, some of us thought it would be very difficult. To see the coaches work with the players, and then at the end everyone performing on stage with no music stands, playing with amazing energy, with connection, with pride in their achievement – that was a very moving experience for me. For the musicians, having that confidence, that knowledge that they can play a full symphonic piece without sheet music – and if they can do that then anything is possible – is very important for them going forward.

KJ We had the situation where musicians came up to us after The Firebird saying, ‘Hey, we want to memorise everything. We just want to play from memory now.’ That’s a fantastic attitude.

DvA All the things we do come down to empowering people. We empower our musicians, and my hope is that they carry that forward and help other people to believe in themselves and put energy and effort into achieving their goals.

KJ I’m very happy that there are chamber groups, in places like Berlin and Estonia, and ensembles like 1B1 in Norway and NICO in Lithuania, which are doing similar things to us. We are all inspiring each other, and as we develop new ideas we create a movement, a momentum for doing things differently, based on the understanding that there’s nothing to fear, that everything is possible. My hope for the future is that this entrepreneurial mentality takes hold of more and more people, not just in the world of classical music but in other genres and other areas of society. I want people to look at what we are doing, how we connect people and connect people with the environment, and be so moved and motivated by it that they want to do it themselves, only better.