August seems to be a month for deserved summer holidays for some, but it is also buzzing with festivals of classical music. So instead of chilling out on a beach on Canary Islands one could spend the final days of summer immersing oneself in music, meeting new people and attending multiple events that are organized around festivals. Although one could be headed in any direction across Europe, this year I made an extensive Scandinavian trip, as there was much on offer in this part of the world. Stockholm was ripe with festivals during the end of August: it had its 16th  edition of annual Baltic Sea Festival this year (Östersjöfestivalen in Swedish), it also had an Ingmar Bergman festival dedicated to centenary of his birth run by Dramaten Theatre, and for one weekend Aurora Festival of Chamber Music was also drawing attention of music lovers

Baltic Sea Festival was conceived by Valery Gergiev, Michael Tydén and Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1999 during a boat trip in St Petersburg, during one of its white nights, then the idea was developed further in Helsinki and Baden-Baden, and the first edition of the festival took place in 2003. The concern for enviromental issues was to become a thread running through the Festival, and the WWF became one of its partners, while seminars about Baltic Sea were to be held in parallel with the classical music programme. Musicians and audiences from various countries having access to Baltic Sea (Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Germany) were to realize their closeness to one another  – a prospect that seemed so possible in a decade after the fall of Berlin wall, and seems conspicously less so in the current atmosphere of increasing political tensions and invisible borders and prejudices recreated or still maintained.  Enourmous efforts of logistics are involved to bring various orchestras and choirs to Stockholm, and all concerts proceed in a beautiful Berwaldhallen hall which exists partly under the ground, and seems to emerge from the granite in a very Swedish, close-to-nature way. All concerts are traditionally broadcast by Swedish radio P2, so its audiences increase dramatically, while the tickets, one must note, are relatively expensive, and the discounts for students are non-substantial. So, on the one hand, the Festival has an aura of an elite event, and draws on the audiences of music lovers from elder and richer part of Stokholm’s population, on the other hand, it broadcasts its concerts, invites people to participate in its seminars and provides grounds for interactions and communications of musicians coming from various countries of the region. Additional small problem for an international critic that all important information (a programme of the festival, subtitles for choral and operatic works, insights talks before concerts, speeches of the organisers and even the seminars) of this festival that positions itself as an international one was in Swedish, and one had to tap on small existing knowledge of the language. It seems that English subtitles for every event are indeed overdue, but it was a small drawback in comparison.

22 August 2018

The festival started in a magnificent manner, opening with Mahler’s 8th Symphony conducted by Daniel Harding who holds the post of Principal Conductor of Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (the resident of Berwardhallen). The evening opened with speeches from two of its artistic directors: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tydén, while for the latter it was the last one to lead, and thus many farewell and complementary words were aimed at Michael during the Festival. The Eighth Symphony is rightfully called ‘The Symphony of a Thousand’, as it requires the participation of 8 soloists, several choirs and an enhanced orchestra. Harding, who had already performed this Symphony with the majority of present musicians, still needed additional time to rehearse this gigantic masterpiece and to structure its different lines of development, as two of its parts, while united, have each a logic of their own.

It is said that this particular Symphony was composed by Mahler in a period of spiritual epiphany, a revelation that could only come from the divine forces. In parallel to what composer felt himself (it is his own words that we believe in seeing this masterpiece as a product of swift and powerful inspiration), the Symphony is based on two texts (Latin hymn ‘Veni, creator spiritus, and final part of the second part of Goethe’s ‘Faust) that speak about divine intervention into human existence that is so potent that is almost physical, and transcends the borders of body and soul, as well as of invidivuality by merging humans and angels and divine forces into some kind of amalgam of beauty, power, quiet force and exuberant harmony. With such theme of the symphony, its thousand of singers and musicians logically incorporates and puts to life its main idea of unity of individals in one uplifting upward movement, and always serves for the listeners as some kind of magical and ritualistic event where one feels invisible bonds with people around growing and developing through music.

Daniel Harding was magnificent in controlling different worlds of two of the symphony’s parts, with the second one plunging the listener into the dreamscapes where nature with its forests, lakes, mountaines and winding paths could be heard and where an encounter with divine powers was delivered by soloists (Ida Falk Winland, Tamara Wilson, Simon O’Neill, Christopher Maltman, Karen Cargill) as something unexpected, granted from heaven as a present and cherished on the waves of voices empowered by this unprecedented connection. ‘Ewig weibliche’ of the Symphony’s end reverberates in one’s mind for hours afterwards, as Mahler’s final tune is so hopeful, so harmonious, so promising that one repeats it mentally over and over to model the symphony’s beauty in miniature in one’s head. A wonderful evening to bring together musicians and audiences through an ecstatic emotional bouquet, and artistic directors of the Festival took time again to congratulate the performers on the astounding success, which was repeated several days afterwards at the closure of Edinburgh Festival 2018.

26 August 2018

The next highlight of the Baltic Sea Festival was the visit of its third founder and artistic adviser – Valery Gergiev, who brought his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra with him. For St Petersburg resident like myself hearing Maestro Gergiev conduct brings reminiscences of his performances in Mariinsky-1, Mariinsky-2 and Mariinsky Concert Hall, with the latest Tchaikovsky competition, as well as ‘Faces of Pianism’ and ‘White Nights’ festivals coming to mind. The maestro is well-known for his unbelievably busy schedule and tours and concerts including Far East and newly-opened branch of Mariinsky Theatre in Vladivostok. However, he still finds time to schedule a visit to Baltic Sea Festival, and this time he brought an all-Russian programme to it, combining two famous ballet suites of Igor Stravinsky (‘The Firebird’ (second version, 1919) and ‘Petrushka’ (original 1911 version) with his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite for his ballet ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’. Katarina Lindblad made a wonderful introduction to the concert, explaining to the audiences some particularities of Russian folkore, including the plots of Pushkin’s ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’ and the Russian fairy-tale-imbued ‘The Firebird’. ‘Petrushka’ is also soaked in Russian folklore, but of the later period – that of 19th century songs sung in taverns, fairs and on the long horse rides through the country.

Valery Gergiev made a special case of thanking Michael Tydén for his friendship and collaboration in the beginning and in the end of the concert, with it acquiring a special value as the end of an important period in the lives of these two men and the festival as a whole. The concert itself was fiery, powerful and inventive, showcasing the long-established synthesis of the Maestro Gergiev and his own orchestra that understands him beyond words and sometimes even before his gestures. Gergiev has an unusually tiny conducting stick that puts to focus his hands, head and body, and allows the audiences to feel how precise and accurate Mariinsky’s Orchestra system of ‘breathing together’ (Gergiev’s own definition of what he is trying to achieve with his orchestra) is. The musical material is also well-known to musicians and the conductor: three world-famous ballet suits that empower the fantasy of the listener to create or re-build the enchanted worlds: that of Tsar Saltan’s Island and the sea where his wife and son have been exiled, that of Kashchey the Immortal’s magic realm and that of Shrovetide’s puppetry shows where people danced, drunk and forgot about real life. Moreover, both Stravinsky’s suites (and ballets themselves) have this theme of a dancer putting people around to death, making them dance till exhaustion and bring the world to collapse and renovation through dance. Gergiev made his Orchestra evoke this dancing madness in both suites, while always highlighting Russian folk tunes incorporated in the score feel like unexpected surprises for Swedish audiences. Under Gergiev’s hands the suites did not feel like well-known Russian pieces beloved for their exoticism: even Rimsky-Korsakov and especially Stravinsky felt modern and vibrant, as though they could be musical patterns of our contemporaries’ feverish existence. However, the border between magic and life was never made banal: Gergiev still made magnificent worlds envisioned by Stravinsky, Benois, Fokine and Diaghilev feel alive on stage, as though his music making that night was imbued by his experience conducting the Mariinsky Theatre ballet troupe.

27 August 2018

The next evening there was another incredible event at the Baltic Festival – the concert staging of Finnish National Opera’s production ‘Höstsonaten’ (‘Autumn Sonata’) that had its proper run in Helsinki during the season 2017/2018 and was now brought in a concert version to Stockholm. Its showing was scheduled for Ingmar Bergman’s 100th anniversary celebrated by Dramaten Theatre in 2018, and presentation of the opera was made by dramaturg of Dramaten Magnus Florin who had worked with Bergman for many years. It seems that the idea of making an opera based on Bergman’s script for ‘Autumn Sonata’ came to the head of Finnish National Opera Lilli Paasikivi, and she suggested it to the librettist Gunilla Hemming and to the renowned Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund. They immersed themselves in Bergman’s worlds, emerging with a new creation that is less sombre, more tender, more feminine in many ways and also bringing in more instances of interaction and communication than Bergman’s film. If in the film love, the biggest treasure that is sought for, is in many instances left unstated, the opera makes the search for it, the process of admitting it, speaking out about it, finding it in one’s heart its whole aim and purpose. Here love is looked for by everyone: Charlotte Andergast, a famous pianist, her daughter Eva, her another daughter Helena, Eva’s husband Victor and even the deceased persons appear on stage and crave to be loved and understood. The opera also has an underpinning of Chekhov’s plays (one is reminded of egocentric, spoiled Arkadina in ‘The Seagull’, as well as of Ranevskaya from the ‘Cherry Orchard’, while the theme of life lost for someone else is so close to ‘Uncle Vanya’), as well as those of Ibsen and Strindberg, but hovers in spheres that are uniquely intimate and poetic, less severe, more tender and impercetibly optimistic than these dramas.

The heroines of Fagerlund’s opera talk (sing) all the time, as this is prescribed by opera’s genre, and the amount and levels of talking are multiplied by the librettist and composer: the characters interact between themselves (daughter and mother, sisters, wife and husband), to themselves (and to us, the audiences), to their memories, to their future, to their ghosts (deceased persons with live persons) and inner voices (Charlotte Andergast and the public in her head). Fagerlund creates a weave of dreamscapes of these interactions where in fact each voice, even inhibited, even coming from the past, even already forgotten and suppressed emerge and speak, creating the picture of loves, longings, hopes that come from afar, from deep inside, as though a big monument of family ties appears from under the water or sand. Hemming is very inventive in her libretto to make different voices heard and to alternate the tensions and levels of intimacy, bringing the opera from outside coldness and suppression of emotions to opening up of a volcano on which this unhealthy family sat for all those years: anger, fear, envy, longing, loss, desease, hope and – most importantly – love. Dead persons (Andergasts’ lover Leonardo and Eva’s deceased son) come on stage to comment on the past, while a choir has a unique role of the public that idolizes the pianist but sometimes requires from her more than she could possible give, and sounds in a very acute contrast to what happens around her and what she refuses to face. Such structure brings to mind the introverted worlds of Martin Crimp and George Benjamin’s operas (‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ had its premiere in London in May 2018) where psychological abysses of characters are also brought for stage inspection as though they were lucid waters for the audiences to roam through.

Fagerlund is exquisite in balancing his whole creation to make it highly dramatic, very lucid and very precise, allowing pauses and silences for us to comprehend it, to let us discover its depths, to follow the paths of characters gradually, slowly and get prepared to the opera’s climaxes. He always highlights the parts of singers and gives them space, never allowing the orchestra to shadow them, with the choir also never overpowers the soloists, while on another layer the orchestral sounds create a dense psychological web reflecting and complementing, and sometimes contrasting the singers’ parts. May be the only (and possibly inevitable) drawback was the relative dullness of stills from the opera (they were supposed to let us imagine the staging), while the subtitles were not very pronounced on the bright orange and yellow autumnal backdrop. However, the Swedish subtittles were simple and precise enough to follow the opera’s plot line, which was in itself a wonderful, almost a mind-opening experience. It was another proof of lucidity of this opera’s structure – here everything was built up so carefully that one felt immersed in its world to the point of understanding each of its turn, ideas, voices and themes.

Anne Sofie von Otter as Charlotte Andergast was magnificent, and very inventive and varied in her emotional palitre, while Erika Sunnegårdh was very powerful and brave, almost to the point of self-sacrifice, in her delivery of Eva’s character, and made one cringe in empathy with her troubled, tragic world where love’s shards are still strong and could be brought together to mirror an ideal, unexisting, but desired world of mother and daughter’s affection. Helena Juhtunen as Helena managed to channel the outworldliness of a crimpled woman even from her seated position, and her standing up once was unexpected and tormented and liberating at once, while Tommi Hakkala (Victor) and Nicholas Söderlund (Leonardo) added the voices of men who were mostly worried observers or kind commentators in these operas. Dalia Stasevska was ever-present in conducting this multi-layered world with precision and mastery, always attentive to the nuances of its structure and development in time, and channeling its participants (soloists, the choir, the Finnish National Opera Orchestra) accurately and tenderly, almost like a loving mother herself.

31 August 2018

The penultimate concert of the Baltic Sea Festival was special as it marked the introduction of adanced digital technology into its programme – it would also be used for its final concert on the next day. While many visiting orchestras, choirs and musicians (from Lithuania, Finland, Russia, Estonia) were on stage during the Festival, now it was time for Berwardhallen’s resident – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra – to return to rehearsal halls, as both of the two final concerts requires extensive preparation and coordination of many sides involved in the process. It was a unique chance to observe these preparations in Stockholm, while in fact they started months and weeks ago. Swedish composer Jesper Nordin received a commission from Baltic Sea Festival in 2011, and at some point was able to offer a composition based on his invention of an app-based digital platform called Gestrument that has orchestral sounds of various combinations pre-recorded and immersed into the real-life acoustic orchestral performance. Gestrument, while providing a potentiality of digital sounds to be produced, is still operated in real time by conductor (Esa-Pekka Salonen) and the instrumentalist (Martin Fröst) on stage, while the rigging of the entire hall and installation of 60 transmitters is operated by sound engineers from Music Unit (Martin Antiphon and Manuel Poletti), Paris.

Jesper Nordin’s composition ‘Emerging from Currents and Waves’ consists of three parts – ‘Currents’, ‘Emerge’ and ‘Waves’ (scored in three different booklets by the composer) and a part ‘Emerge’ has been performed by the famous clarinettist Martin Fröst in a concert performance separately, so he was already acquianted with Gestrument. The orchestra was also used to the new composition as Nordin’s assistant Mark Desmons conducted them through it in preparation for the concert. For Esa-Pekka Salonen who came to rehearse the piece 3 days before the performance it was a new challenge, though Nordin tried to make detailed directions for conductor for each enactement of Gestrument on the sides of the score. Gestrument required its own hand movements, while conducting presumed its own normal logic (and the orchestra had not to mix the two), plus there were also movements of head and body, and pauses where solo clarinet or a dancer (Virpi Pahkinen) appeared. In addition to it, Thomas Goepfer (light designer) and Katrin Bränström (scenography) introduced a visual programme that was enacted along with the sounds of Gestrument and required the dimming of lights in Berwardhallen for the entire performance. It all had to work in harmony, and amazing efforts from all involved were required to make it work, with the computer placed ahead of the conductor monitoring his hand movements, and sound engineers always in contact with the composer trying to control the infra-red digital space from which the sounds were supposed to emerge and that could not be controlled manually on stage by performers.

The actual performance went without glitches, if one forgets about disappearance of two performers and musicians’ lights not working for a few moments. The audiences were enthralled by the whole concept of producing digital orchestral sounds out of nowhere to complement the real orchestral sounds, and half-cinematic, half-theatrical nature of the proceedings was also gripping. The silhouettes of performers contoured in the contrasting light were especially striking: a mime-like Martin Fröst was doing wonders with his clarinet as though it was a part of his body or a war sabre to fight with invisible demons, and sometimes stepped himself into the infra-red field to produce a striking, hurrying, almost cacophonic bunch of sounds. Virpi Pahkinen swayed and strayed through stage like a boat, or a fish, or a bird, adding up to the theme of ‘currents’ and ‘waves’ that was proposing a possibility of the sea of dreams along with constantly changing resonations that we call ‘sounds’. Esa-Pekka Salonen, with his huge experience of conducting contemporary music, resembled a captain of a ship (continuing the sea metaphor) guiding the sailors with their instruments through the Sargasso Sea of the composition, and he sometimes had to step in as a boatswain to consult the map (Nordin’s score), as the route still contained hidden and unknown currents.

There was a very nostalgic, surprising and tender moment when another clarinetist Magnus Holmander appeared in the choir to finish the composition with a very melancholic, ethereal tune, as though someone on this ship did not want for it to go ashore and still longed for the moon and stars of the midnight journey, singing a farewell hymn to their beauty. Nordin’s music itself could be perceived differently, as it was in itself an intentionally vague field for exploration with several milestones of musical climaxes put along the way. While it was found as repetitive in its drawing out each idea to its maximum by some of the music critics, its potential should have been seen in its experiments with complementarity of digital and acoustic sounds, as well as visual and physical elements of the performance. The audiences of Jesper Nordin’s music were supposed to develop new, matrix-like ways of its perception, consuming music like a spatial puzzle consisting of many elements rather than as a body streched in time. One is not sure of all members of public proceeded through this journey, but with contemporary classical music one always makes a hesitant step ahead while listening to it, adding each new experience to one’s habitus of living through new pieces to come.

1 September 2018

The closing concert of the 16th edition of Baltic Sea Festival was programmed as a birthday celebration for its founder and artistic adviser – Esa-Pekka Salonen, who turned 60 earlier this summer (30th June). There had been already several concerts marking this occasion for an internationally renowned musician: the one in Helsinki on 17th August 2018 was broadcast on Finnish television and streamed worldwide. For each of those concerts the programme was chosen by Salonen himself, and thus represented the works important for him as composer and conductor and revealing his individuality in both professions. This concert, called ‘Congratulations, Esa-Pekka’ was no exception, and Salonen rehearsed it with Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra along with Nordin’s work for three days before the actual performance. The concert featured a series of introductions into Salonen’s life and career, with the focus made on the decade of his involvement with SRSO at the start of his career. Firstly, Boel Adler introduced his involvement in Baltic Sea Festival and outlined the chronology of Salonen’s conducting career, and then Esa-Pekka himself made an extended introduction from stage of his own Cello concerto (one of the most recent compositions) before its was performed. Salonen is known for witty and inventive introductions to his pieces, but among his advanced Swedish I could only gather Scott and Amundsen and virtual reality mentioned, while he also invoked Yo-Yo Ma (the dedicatee and first performer of the concert) and his Silkroad project that inspired him to introduce congas and bongos (making a percussionst the second soloist) into his score.

The concert started with a pet piece of the conductor (it has already opened several of his programmes during the season) – Heinrich Biber’s Battalia (1673) which sounds sirprisingly modern despite being written in the 17th century. The musicians (mainly violins and violas) are standing in a small group around the conductor, with their fraternity enhanced, smiles exchanged and the whole piece performed as it were a game, a jubilation or a tongue-and-cheek invitation for audiences to consume a surprising and constantly changing (one of its movements has instruments go deliberately off tune, playing in different tonalities) piece of music. It seems that Salonen wants to dig deep in musical history for pieces that still sound refreshingly contemporary, and also invite the audiences to relax, shake their respectful anticipation off, clear their auditory palate and just enjoy the music and the moment. He smiled conspiratorially at musicians, too – they knew they were in for more fun to come during the journey of the concert.

The next piece on the programme was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s own Cello Concerto first performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Chicago Symphony Orchestra in March 2017. During the new season the Norwegian virtuoso Truls Mørk will showcase this piece whenever Salonen will conduct it (the upcoming performances include London, as well as his West Coast tour in 2019), and it is with Mørk that Salonen collaborated at Baltic Sea Festival. The Cello Concerto has a cosmological imagery, with the first movement invoking the emergence of conscience (or a thought) out of chaos, the second exploring cloud formations and inviting the listener to visualize a cello almost as a space explorer ‘emerging from clouds and waves’, where the atmosphere loses normal dimensions and invites multiple echos to appear along with the initial source of sound. The third movement is a liberation from this hard journey through galaxies of formations and digresses into a dance-like movement where congas and bongos gain their importance along the cellist who still takes the initiative back by reaching the impossible heights on the final note and leaving it there. The concerto also has self-quotes from Salonen’s piece for solo cello ‘Knock, breath, shine’. Correspondingly, while the first movement gives the room for the cellist to explore his own virtuosity (and Salonen is known for challening his performers to their limits), the second one introduces multiple duets and echoes, including the looped sounds (Ella Wahlström supervised the looping in the auditorium) of the cello itself (Mørk listened to these echoes with trasfixed, almost childlike attention), and the third is an exctatic, prolonged movement where one’s eyes and ears move from maracas and timpani to bongos and congas and then back to the soloist again. Salonen himself was more subdued than usual, moving to a new conducting mode as compared to him leading the orchestra in Biber, and allowed his instrumentalists to explore his score and focus on moments and details of their preference, and generously embraced and congratulated Truls Mørk after the performance. One always imagines that Salone has to walk rather a complex line in his conscience when conducting his own pieces, and it is rare for him to get temperamental and ecstatic during such performances, with introspection on the podium being his mode of coping with juggling the tasks of an author and a performer.

It is the third piece on the programme, Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, that made Salonen ‘the conductor’ emerge out of the earlier self-inflicted moderation. Even during rehearsals there was an incredible, almost tangible inflow of energy when Salonen started to work on Beethoven’s symphony with SRSO. It is probably his favourite one in Beethoven’s canon, and he brought it on tour with Philharmonia in 2017. The Symphony’s movements are so strikingly different from one another (and that suited Salonen’s intentions well), yet each of them (especially the second and the third) are already existing in the listener’s musical memory and allow the audiences to have enough background auditory context to appreciate a new interpretation. And Salonen indeed opted or a rather radical Beethoven, inviting the orchestra along for a rather wild journey through it and never loosening the reins. It is interesting to compare it to a rehearsal – this verge of musical madness is always spontaneous, always reserved for a performance itself, and never prepared in a rehearsal hall. One felt the same virtiginous whirlwind of energy during his Mahler’s First Symphony performances with Philhamonia in April 2018, but Beethoven was different, it felt like seeing a classical gothic (or renaissance) building suddenly blending away into new, extravagant forms almost like in a film reel or a collage. There was no time or space for intellectual analysis of this interpretation, one just had to go along with it, forgetting everything else. Musicians also later attested to an irrestible drive imposed on them by the conductor which was assumed eagerly, with a hint of curiosity of going into unexplored lands.

The evening ended with congratulatory speeches from Michael Tydén and Cilla Benkö from the Swedish radio and Helena Wessman from the Berwardhallen, and in the end Esa-Pekka Salonen was to mount a couch from which he and everybody else watched a small film about funny moments during his years in Sweden, involving him expressing his hatred of Christmas and pop music, as well as self-assuredly stating that his star status helps in channeling classical music to younger audiences. May be during these final moments one felt that celebrations and congratulations and general buzz of admiration went too far, and in a way was already too familiar for Salonen who just had a full row of similar events during the year, but one hoped that after the festivities he will return to his calm, contained and productive self that will lead to new compositions and explorations of music for his new conducting season. In general, the Baltic Sea Festival was a big and never-ending buzz of events, talks and meetings, and when the tiredness of a cultural overflow is shaken off, it is the memory of a never-ending process of music making remained with its attendants. The concerts will be different next year, but this feeling will stay.