Baltic Sea Philharmonic – A Platform for Culture. Society. Environment

The Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic has come a long way since its inception in 2008 – both geographically and philosophically. Since the very first concert in Riga, under the baton and artistic leadership of Founding Conductor and Music Director, Kristjan Järvi, it has travelled far and wide across Europe spreading its musical message.

Today, the orchestra has come of age, not just in name as the ensemble will tour as Baltic Sea Philharmonic from 2016, but also in its reputation and the scale of its ambitions, to become a force for musical inspiration and social change in the Baltic Sea region, and a beacon for the music world. In 2016, it is also about to take this to the next level, developing an innovative music education system that seeks to change the world at both grass-root and political levels.

The beginning of the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic

When the orchestra first set out as Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic (BYP) back in 2008 initiated by the Usedom Music Festival and Nord Stream AG, a gas pipeline operator through the Blatic Sea, its mission was simple – to bring together young people from all countries of the Baltic Sea region in musical harmony. Just as the Baltic Sea both separates and connects its ten surrounding countries, BYP celebrates the diverse national characteristics of the musicians and the music while creating a united voice for the entire region. Each year, the finest musicians are chosen from across Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden to form a unique orchestra. Kristjan Järvi says: ‘Initially as an organisation we tried to highlight the cooperation between the countries of the Baltic Sea. We wanted to reflect this in a multinational orchestra made up of young people. The main goal was to make music together.’

The orchestra was an instant success among players and audiences alike, as well as sponsors, who understood the value of the project, and conservatoires who could see the benefits to their students. As its reputation spread, it was invited to perform across Europe, embarking on regular tours and playing at the most prestigious concert halls and festivals. Politicians, too, understood the importance of its mission, and after being invited to perform at the Summit of the Council of the Baltic Sea States in Stralsund in 2012, at the invitation of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor praised the orchestra as ‘a compelling example of using music as a powerful medium for cooperation and integration across borders.’ In 2015, these achievements were honoured with the European Culture Prize by the European Culture Foundation ‘Pro Europe’. The 2015 jury awarded Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic in acknowledgement of the enormous impact the orchestra has made on the culture of the region since its inception. In particular, the jury cited the orchestra’s ‘passionate and thrilling performances as an example to others to inspire worldwide audiences and foster cultural understanding in Europe and beyond’.

Envisioning an education system for the Baltic Sea region

As its success grew, so did its ambitions, and in 2013 the Baltic Sea Music Education Foundation e. V. (BMEF) was established, to develop and further the orchestra’s teaching activities and philosophy. The foundation built a rich network of musical contacts and coaches and put in place an Artistic Council, with members including Valery Gergiev, Marek Janowski, Mariss Jansons, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kurt Masur, who has twice conducted the orchestra. The Foundation is focusing on the education of young musicians and therefore holds an annual academy, which is based on its innovative ‘LAB’, a one-week workshop that offers insights into all aspects of the musical training process plus a workshop for conductors and composition students.

Protecting the environment has also always been a key part of the organisation’s mission, and the orchestra has performed several specially commissioned works reflecting this, including Mountains. Water. (Freedom) and Never Ignore the Cosmic Ocean, both by Gediminas Gelgotas. Järvi explains why: ‘Environment is a very important word for us, in two different senses. As humans we create the environment between each other. But we also have to be connected to the greater environment in our daily lives. Then we realise that there are no differences between peoples or nationalities. The whole planet is ours. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your story is: we must take care of each other, and of the Earth.’

The next step is to develop the visionary aspect of the academy approach, and Järvi is channelling his wisdom and experience into creating a programme that is both practical and metaphysical, as he describes: ‘One of our aims is to develop a holistic approach to playing and understanding music, rather than separating the physical, mental and spiritual sides. We will focus on all these components in helping musicians achieve their musical potential. We will spend time on the practical aspects of making music: using one’s body properly, enjoying the physicality of playing, having fun, making friends, being part of one rhythmic entity. But we will also include the entrepreneurial sides: getting things done effectively, being organised, commissioning music, helping conductors to work better and quicker. My ambition is for our alumni to become leaders, creators and entrepreneurs: people who impact society in a positive way, whichever way they can. I can’t say that everyone who plays in the orchestra will go on to be a musician, but maybe they’ll become advocates for other important things. The organisation is a birthplace for creative thinking and leadership.’

Founding the Baltic Sea Philharmonic

With this holistic and ambitious approach as the focus, it seemed to limit the orchestra to categorise it as a ‘youth’ orchestra and the next logical step was to establish a new orchestra, and so was born the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. Järvi says: ‘We have come to the point where we have developed into a larger institution than we ever imagined, so we’re launching a new orchestra in addition to our youth orchestra– the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. It will still be a young orchestra, but the age cap has been removed, and former alumni and people of all ages can apply. It has the same aspirations as Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic but is a more select group of people who want to pursue playing in a project orchestra that comes together several times a year for tours of the Baltic Sea region and beyond.’

Indeed, the aspirations of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic in social and political terms remain the same, and at this particular point in history, its purpose of looking beyond cultural and political difference seems more urgent than ever. Järvi says: ‘We play music that is borderless and universal. Everyone can understand it because it deals with human emotions. There may be certain structures, forms and norms that we follow individually as musicians, but at the same time music is emotional, and within the orchestra we can give ourselves to these emotions without feeling like we are taking sides. The only side we take is that of the orchestra, which is our society. This is why the orchestra is an ideal environment to create social change, an instrument to achieve our ideals. The orchestra demonstrates that culture is the most important platform for opening up discussions about our entire existence.’

Järvi can provide tangible examples of this: ‘After the last concert a Russian horn player said to me: “My whole view of the world is different, because I’m making music with people from the same region, but of nationalities I’d never met before, playing music that’s not mine. I’ve truly fallen in love with it.” This is how being in the orchestra results in a higher level of consciousness, thought and understanding. This kind of change in people is tangible and real. It also creates a grass-roots respect, mutual understanding and admiration for each other, so there is less possibility of misunderstanding between people.’

Tours in 2016 celebrate Baltic Sea region

Auditions for the tours and academy are currently underway, with nearly 500 players auditioning to join for 2016, which promises to be an exciting year. There will be two main projects: the ‘Baltic Sea Landscapes’ tour in April 2016, covering Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and Russia, with repertoire by Stravinsky, Pärt, Sibelius and Gelgotas, and celebrations for Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary and celebrating the rich culture as well as the environment of the Baltic Sea region. Then, in September, the orchestra is joined by Gidon Kremer and his Kremeratica Baltica for the ‘Baltic Sea Discovery’ programme, with repertoire by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Pärt based on the theme of the swan. And, as for the swan, the journey for the orchestra is ever onwards and upwards.