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Feast of sounds made by a conglomerate of artists: Baltic Sea Festival-2018

September 14, 2018


 August seems to be a month for deserved summer holidays, but paradoxically 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 and concerts. In the northern part of Europe, 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 Music Festival was also drawing attention of Nordic 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 relatively small drawback.


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.


Daniel Harding conducting Mahler 8. Credits: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio  


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 and SRSO in Mahler 8. Credits: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio


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 and Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Credits: Arne Hyckeberg


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.


Valery Gergiev saying kind words to Michael Tydén after the concert. Credits: Arne Hyckeberg


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 featured 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.



Conductor Dalia Stasevska, Anne Sofie von Otter and Erika Sunnegårdh. Credits: Arne Hyckeberg


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.


Composer Sebastian Fagerlund thanking the performers. Credits: Arne Hyckenberg 


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.


Erika Sunnegårdh (Eva) and Helena Juhtunen (Helena). Credits: Arne Hyckenberg


Fagerlund has achieved an outstanding feat in exquisitely balancing his creation to make it highly dramatic, while also very lucid and precise, allowing pauses and silences for us to comprehend it, discover its depths, gradually follow the paths of characters 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. Credits: Arne Hyckenberg


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 caring 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).


 Esa-Pekka Salonen and Martin Fröst. Credits: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio


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.


Berwardhallen dimmed for video installation during Nordin's piece. Credits: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio


The actual performance went without glitches, if one forgets about late appearance 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.


Esa-Pekka Salonen bringing the Gestrument into action. 

Credits: Mikael Grönberg/Sveriges Radio