It all begins with a man who is renowned for his relaxed attitude to tradition: the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. He was born on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa and rebelled at an early age against his purely classical musical training, preferring to experiment with his rock band, In Spe, which he founded in 1976. From the very beginning, Tüür, who was trained at the Tallinn Conservatoire, was fuelled by curiosity and spontaneity. His compositions thrive on stylistic confrontation, and his marimba concerto, Ardor, composed between 2001 and 2002, is a perfect example of this. The British daily newspaper The Guardian called it a ‘virtuoso showpiece’ and explained: ‘Tüür declares his interest in opposites, contrasting gritty and insistent rhythmic simplicity with a teasing complexity. The piece constantly sets up contradictions in order to reconcile them, yet Tüür is less concerned with perpetuating the concerto’s traditional conflict of soloist and orchestra than allowing instruments to react and interact.’
The Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic and Kristjan Järvi revel in exploring the repertoire of the European continent, including that of France. Camille Saint-Saëns lived and worked in Paris. He composed ten great concertos, five for piano, two for cello and three for violin, the most significant contribution to the genre by a French musician, of which Saint-Saëns once said: ‘The solo of a concerto must be organised and handled like a dramatic role.’ His Third Violin Concerto was composed in 1880 for the great virtuoso of the time, Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Saint-Saëns introduced a Spanish-influenced finale in his honour. These ‘Españolas’ were not only popular in France, however: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov brought southern flair to the Baltic region with his Capriccio espagnol, which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1887.
One highlight of past programmes was the orchestral piece Never Ignore the Cosmic Ocean by the young Lithuanian Gediminas Gelgotas. He has composed a new piece – MOUNTAINS. WATERS. (FREEDOM) – commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Orpheum Foundation in Zurich, and it will be premiered in the Tonhalle. Another world premiere is the ‘Green’ Piano Concerto by Finnish jazz vibraphone player and composer Severi Pyysalo. Audiences can expect a lively piece that is influenced by Igor Stravinsky, among others. The composer regards it as music for an imaginary drama and Kristjan Järvi describes the piece to be a ‘powerful evocation of nature’.
Happy 150th birthday, Nielsen and Sibelius!
The 150th anniversaries of two great Nordic composers are celebrated this year and the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic is honouring both. The first is the Dane Carl August Nielsen. He is Denmark’s most important composer and a central figure of Scandinavian music, although the wealth of his compositions is little known outside his home country. As a boy, he played the violin in his father’s dance band, later also working as a cornet player in a military band. He went to the Copenhagen Conservatoire and became a violinist and court conductor in Copenhagen. Nielsen’s educational trips introduced him to German, Italian and French culture at an early date and he is a symbol of the vibrant musical exchange of his era. The rhapsody overture An Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands (1927) imagines a boat trip from the Baltic Sea to the North Atlantic: the autonomous group of islands belongs to the Danish crown.
The second 150th anniversary is that of Finnish Jean Sibelius. He came from a Swedish-speaking family of doctors. At an early age, he enjoyed piano and violin lessons, but initially began studying law. In 1886, he went to Helsinki and trained at the conservatoire there. Like Nielsen, he also travelled throughout Europe, and studied in Berlin and Vienna. Back in Finland, he taught composition and violin at the Helsinki Music Institute. He was a passionate supporter of the Finnish national movement and of independence from Sweden and Russia, a goal which was achieved in 1917. After a brief civil war, the Republic of Finland was declared a year later. With his symphonic poem Finlandia, Sibelius provided a soundtrack to the politics of the time, but he himself lived a withdrawn life in rural Järvenpää. His seven symphonies are highly significant and he found his own distinctive voice, somewhere between late Romanticism and Modernism. The Third Symphony in C major Op. 52 was premiered in Helsinki in 1907 and has a hymnic ending. It is perfectly matched by the Cavatina from Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartet Op. 130, from 1826.
Another stylistically influential composer from Scandinavia was Edvard Grieg. Unfortunately, he produced hardly any symphonies, but he did compose the popular dramatic music for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Pieces from his score became world famous, in the form of two orchestral suites. The drama presents the curious adventures of a farmer’s son who travels around the world. Grieg presents the death of the hero’s mother in the movement ‘Aase’s Death’, in which he explores a heart-rending motif, played only by strings.
A final greeting – the journey continues
Almost 100 years later, the Estonian avant-garde composer Arvo Pärt, who studied in Tallinn, formulated a similar return to simplicity. He developed his music from simple building blocks and therefore called the style he created in the mid-1970s ‘tintinnabuli’, based on the Latin for ‘little bells’. The influence of old music and New Age elements made Pärt’s tonal language immediately famous, since it struck a chord with the times. Pärt’s full-bearded, monastic appearance quickly turned him into a guru figure of New Music after his emigration to the West. One of his most famous ‘tintinnabuli’ pieces is Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, which he produced in 1977 in homage to the British composer, who had appreciated Pärt for the ‘purity of his music’ and who died on 4 December 1976. They never met personally, but through his music Pärt sent his idol a final greeting from what was then the Soviet Union.
The two subsequent composers are familiar to listeners of the successful BYP programme Baltic Sea Voyage, a journey through the Baltic Sea countries that has now been captured on CD. One enthralling listening experience on it is the first movement of the ‘Rock Symphony’ (1972) by the Latvian Imants Kalninš. Like Tüür, he is also a crossover musician who moves between the realms of rock and classical music. The programme also includes the piece Orawa (1986) by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. This music for string orchestra leads us to the Carpathian region of Orawa on the Polish–Slovak border and offers a lively portrait of the landscape and its dancing inhabitants. The journey through the Baltic region continues.