On Tour with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic
“We aren’t supposed to drink on the bus, but I brought beer!” After a full day of rehearsals and a concert in Copenhagen, the musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic were on the road to Sønderborg, a town straddling the main Danish peninsula and the island of Als. It was halfway through their Baltic Sea Discovery tour, led by conductor and curator Kristjan Järvi and joined by soloist Gidon Kremer and section leaders from his Kremerata Baltica. They had started off in Lithuania, rehearsing under thatched roofs in the woods, removed from civilization, then traveled on to Russia and Poland. When I caught up with them during rehearsals at DR Byen broadcasting headquarters in Copenhagen, they were still bringing precision and enthusiasm to their tour repertoire of works by Pärt, Sibelius, Weinberg, and Tchaikovsky—even after their 12-hour trek from Gdansk.
“Sounds great,” I said to Järvi during a coffee break. “They don’t sound great,” he responded, “but they had a long day yesterday of planes, trains, and automobiles. And a boat. So it’s kind of like they spent all night smokin’ weed.”
The dozens of musicians, all between the ages of 18 and 30 and mostly in their early 20s, certainly didn’t seem stoned as the bus gnawed its way across the Danish countryside. Belting Lady Gaga lyrics for much of the five-hour journey, their unity and camaraderie was not only palpable but audible. The musicians hail from ten different countries in the Baltic Sea region (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Denmark, and Germany); yet “all of us share the same spirit or mentality,” according to bassist Miranda Erlich. Erlich had seen an ad for the Baltic Sea Philharmonic on Facebook and subsequently auditioned to join the group. She is Finnish but has lived in Baden-Baden, Germany, for most of her life. “We’re all in one flow with Kristjan,” she said.
Indeed, the musicians who had been smuggling booze onto the bus and into the Scandic Hotel were grinning and grooving during sound check with Järvi a mere 10 hours later. After their raucous night on the “party bus,” they were ready to share their music with schoolchildren of all ages and economic classes at the Alsion cultural center in Sønderborg. And although their three back-to-back “school concerts” followed an identical program, there were distinct variations between each individual performance in rhythm and dynamics, just as clarinetist Alexey Mikhaylenko had described it to me the day before. Mikhaylenko’s classical playing has changed since joining the orchestra and exploring the worlds of jazz and popular music: “I have a different sense of meter and rhythm now,” he said. The improvisatory nature of the Philharmonic’s performances demands an easygoing variation in expression within each rehearsal and concert, with no two renditions of a piece unfolding exactly the same way. “This is very different from a normal youth orchestra,” Mikhaylenko told me. “It brings freedom.”
Järvi encourages passion and energy rather than perfection from his players, an attitude that indeed brings freedom, as well as a sort of naïve optimism, to the performance space. “In this orchestra I’m looking for people who are maybe even weaker players but are personalities, who have charisma,” he said. At each of the performances I witnessed, the musicians danced and improvised during their crowd-pleasing encore, Russian musician Gene Pritsker’s arrangement of an Estonian folk song. Sometimes a bassoonist would skip out into the audience. During one of the “school concerts,” the bassists spun their instruments around like dance partners; at another, a trumpet got stomped on. During a lunch break I overheard some musicians discussing performance tactics: “No, that would be an attempt to be funny, which is not funny.”
Järvi encourages his musicians not to be afraid of mistakes: “Don’t worry about the first note, man; you can fake it,” he told a struggling trumpeter during a rehearsal. Järvi uses words like “transformational,” “empowerment,” and “realm of possibilities” a lot; he’s 44 but seems younger. Regarding the Pritsker arrangement, he referenced fellow Estonian musician Arvo Pärt, who said that music’s only purpose should be for singing and dancing. Järvi’s programming and tour themes reflect his desire to use music to get closer to the natural, to erode what he sees as the “totally false” structures that we humans have built between us and nature. (This tour’s theme was the swan, the national bird of Denmark and the subject of pieces by Pärt, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky.) By avoiding “abstraction, intelligence, and industrialism,” Järvi thinks the live music experience has the potential to unify not just performers but audiences, to offer hope to the hopeless, to form a connectivity between humans and nature. “Music is a drug,” he said, “It’s amazing really. Music releases the same amount of dopamine into the blood as cocaine, did you know that?”
When asked if he himself is a coke user (considering his seemingly boundless energy), Järvi laughed. “I wish,” he said, betraying his slightly adolescent fascination with (and mingled fear of) illegal substances. (In some ways, Järvi can seem even younger than the musicians he directs.) “I do get tired sometimes,” he went on. He tries not to let his conducting, curating, and composing feel like “just a job”: “Every moment you’re dealing with music is important.” Despite the jokes and lightheartedness, Järvi throws himself into the task at hand, pushing himself and those around him to their limits at rehearsals and recording sessions. But the occasional burn-out is inevitable: on the second day of “school concerts,” Järvi woke up with a fever, and was replaced for that day’s performances by assistant conductor Marlon Chen. Järvi was well enough to return to the podium two days later for the final concert, which took place at a former military base on the island of Usedom on the Baltic Sea. A bit pale but exuding his usual excitement, Järvi informed the audience that the Philharmonic’s music-making is meant to mirror “what life is all about: not knowing what’s going to happen next.”
The orchestra drew energy not only from Järvi but from soloist Gidon Kremer, who joined the Philharmonic for their performances of Weinberg’s 1959 Violin Concerto in G Minor in Copenhagen and Peenemünde. (He did not perform at the concert in Kaliningrad, having a somewhat fraught relationship with Russia. Kremer wrote recently in Music & Literature that “My own inner voice…sometimes urges me to count myself a Russian,” going on to relate his activism and ensuing confrontations where Russia is concerned.) The 69-year-old Latvian violinist has become acclaimed over the years for his recordings of Bach and Berg as well as his championing of 20th- and 21st-century composers such as Nono, Schnittke, and Glass. Kremer described himself lately as “on a mission” to promote Weinberg, whom he sees as “the most important Russian-Polish-Jewish composer.” (Last year his Weinberg recording was nominated for a Grammy; another Weinberg album will be released later this year.)
In Copenhagen and Peenemünde, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto joined Pärt’s “Swansong,” Sibelius’s “Swanwhite,” and Järvi’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”; Kremer’s solo encores of a happy-yet-sad Ukrainian folksong and a piercing Weinberg piece stood in stark contrast to the hullabaloo and twirling basses of the Pritsker arrangement. Kremer admitted that Järvi’s theatrical approach to performance “is a bit alien to me.” Where Järvi is suspicious of the abstract, always tying sound to a signifying image (a swan) or political message (humanity’s distance from nature), Kremer prefers to explore “the depths of the sound.”
Kremer seems to accept art’s inherent constructedness rather than naïvely attempting to use it as a vehicle for “getting back to” some sort of idealized or mythologized version of “nature.” Kremer admired Järvi’s energy—“It’s overwhelming!”—but went on to explain that music gives us so much fuel we shouldn’t need any extra action on top of it. Rather than “conquering” masses of people the way Järvi does, Kremer sees himself as “a challenger,” swimming as much against the waves as with them. If Järvi encourages audiences to overcome their insecurities and social awkwardness, literally sweeping them off their feet into dancing and clapping, Kremer challenges them with the abstract searing music of a composer with whom they likely aren’t familiar. Järvi wants to change minds, Kremer to change ears.
Kremer described the musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic as “a little bit exploited,” stretched thin from so many unpaid gigs, and drew a distinction between the Philharmonic, a “project orchestra” which tours roughly twice a year, and his own more permanent ensemble, the Kremerata Baltica. The main difference between the two types of ensemble is that “the project orchestra has wonderful support; there are so many sponsors involved, [including, for the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, corporations such as Nord Stream and Gazprom Bank, both of which have strong financial interests in the Baltic region] that I can only envy.” The Kremerata’s finances are the inverse of its larger counterpart’s; roughly 15 percent of its support comes from outside, while 85 percent of the annual budget must be earned by the group itself. (Asked how he had managed to sustain the Kremerata for 20 years, Kremer exclaimed, “A miracle!”) Additionally, the Kremerata Baltica is a much more tight-knit group of 25 players, while the Baltic Sea Philharmonic consists of a vast collaboration of nearly 100.
All the same, Kremer enjoys promoting the music of the Baltic region with both groups, his eyes twinkling as he describes how working with young people keeps him young. “I can pass on my experiences, knowledge, feelings” to the receptive and appreciative musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, he explained. When asked what he thought this generation of musicians would have to tackle as the foremost challenge of a classical music world frequently diagnosed as “dying,” Kremer reflected for a moment. “Young musicians are infected by the thought that they have to sell, but the real challenge is to remain loyal to the music,” he said. Rather than becoming dependent on the market, musicians should uphold their responsibility to the process: “They should serve the music, never use the music to serve themselves.”
The musicians served the music well in each of the seven performances I witnessed. Pärt’s “Swansong” of 2013, which admittedly failed to sustain the interest of the Danish schoolchildren, evoked the warm oranges and golds of a rising sun, while Sibelius’s 1908 “Swanwhite” swam through a series of lush blues and greens. Järvi pushed the tempi in both pieces, plunging listeners into invigorating yet precise performances, while Chen took more relaxed speeds, allowing audiences to luxuriate particularly in the Romantic sounds of the Sibelius. The Pritsker arrangement was consistently the highlight, even during the final concert in Peenemünde. After a day off biking around Usedom and swimming in the Baltic Sea, the musicians sounded unfocused throughout the Pärt, only pulling it together just in time for the final triangle ping; yet their Pritsker sounded better than it had all week. The Philharmonic gulped the audience into a totally immersive experience—“it should feel like scuba diving,” Järvi had advised—with the wrenching silence that followed sounding more sad than empty. (It was of course quickly obscured by explosive applause.)
The centerpiece of each performance was Järvi’s arrangement of “Swan Lake,” a madcap slapdash assemblage of familiar tunes that changed from one version to the next. Variations in dynamics, tempo, tone, even individual rhythms that slanted or sloped or slashed kept the music sounding fresh. Yet I couldn’t help but wondering why, if Järvi is so intent on revitalizing the classical music concert experience, he wouldn’t want to revitalize the repertoire as well. An updated take on “Swan Lake” is enjoyable to those familiar with (or bored with) “Swan Lake”; yet can a 150-year-old ballet really break down insecurities, bring underprivileged listeners into a world they might think of as elitist, or offer relevant commentary on climate change? Järvi claims that “classical music makes me nervous,” but he sure programs a lot of it, particularly by dead white men. The possibilities for this group of energetic, earnest musicians lie more in contemporary and folk music than in classics that have been tweaked or dressed up a bit.
Which is not to say that “Swan Lake” was not utterly fun. Yet the strength of the tour lay not in the bombastic, theatrical Tchaikovsky but in the sleek subtlety of the Weinberg. Despite Järvi’s and Kremer’s differing views on musical interpretation, the synthesis in their approaches led to performances that were captivating, accurate, and communicative in a much more effective way. All the musicians’ abstract intensity found its outlet here, coalescing into a unified wavelike entity. Wearing white during the concert in Copenhagen, Kremer resembled a swan cresting along this dark ocean of sound. (Perhaps just the power of suggestion.) Despite having played the piece dozens upon dozens of times, Kremer pulled his younger colleagues along with his passion and urgency. The Philharmonic, following his lead, engulfed their listeners in their sound, captivating us so that by the end we hadn’t even realized we’d been carried out to sea. ¶