Photo: Johan Ljungström

Features The Baltic Sea Festival Bridging East and West, North and South

The eleven-day Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm is supposed to build bridges and tie cultural bounds.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds page 18, BW 2010 vol III:3
Published on on September 21, 2010

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The eleven-day Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm was perhaps the perfect prelude to the reset of urban cultural life as late summer faded into fall. Eight years have now passed since some of the world’s foremost conductors, with roots in the Baltic Sea region, brought the idea of the festival to life. Two of them, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Valery Gergiev, continue to be active driving forces for the event, though Gergiev was actually born in Moscow and grew up in Ossetia.

Berwaldhallen, the center of the festival, has played a special role for both of them: for Salonen during his years as principal conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and for Gergiev who had his international break-through with that same orchestra when conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

The Stockholm Opera is no longer included among the festival’s venues. However, Gergiev brought the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra with him from St. Petersburg for a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 with a spartan orchestral crew and solos throughout for soprano and bass — Olga Sergeyeva and Sergei Aleksashkin — set to the Russian translation of poems by Lorca, Appolinaire, Küchelbeker, and Rilke on the theme of death and transi-ence. The naked sorrow and darkness of the piece seemed to have left their mark on the overflowing audience exiting the hall after the performance. The symphony was written shortly after the fall of Khrushchev, the Soviet transition from thaw to frost, and the composer’s difficulties with the previous symphony, “Babi Yar”.

Esa-Pekka Salonen directed the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with choirs and Finnish alto soloist Monica Groop in Gustav Mahler’s ninety-minute long Symphony No. 3. Many details in the Mahlerian landscape emerged with amazing clarity, but they were far too often just episodes in the slow and not always fully concentrated whole of the performance. When Salonen returned in Béla Bartók’s one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the intensity was palpable: an increasingly claustro-phobic enclosure on the path through the dark secrets of the castle. Lilli Paasikivi and Gábor Betz were completely immersed in this absorbing drama, performed in Hungarian.

Eight mostly young women composers from the Baltic Sea region were presented, in part with commissioned works. The programmatic feature was striking, as expressed in Swedish-Russian Victoria Borisova-Olla’s bell-chiming Munich portrait “Angelus” and Swedish Katarina Leymann’s “Solar Flares” with a weightless yet energetic treatment of large orchestral sound. Catherine Palmer’s “Dona Nobis Pacem” was premiered by the Latvian Radio Choir and evoked, unimpeded by any programmatic ambitions, an image of Vilnius: southern European roots in the text — Francis of Assisi — and a tonal language with a remote northern European accent.

The Latvian Radio Choir, under the direction of Tonu Kaljuste and Sigvard Klava, also included a theme in its program that neatly fit within the Baltic framework, especially with two veterans present: Estonian composers Arvo Pärt, 75, and Veljo Tormis, 80. Tormis’s Latvian runic songs in particular created a fascinating proximity to a distant past. The choir is his medium; his “Reminiscentiae” for orchestra — Stockholm Sinfonietta in Gustav Vasa Church — seemed less timeless.

The festival itself, as artistic director Esa-Pekka Salonen noted, is an indicator of a new political situation. Even in the 1980s, Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke was chaperoned by a “trenchcoat” from the KGB at the Helsinki Festival, but was able to sneak away for a brief conversation at the hotel breakfast table before being forced to leave the festival the following day. Some vocal soloists from the Estonia Theatre’s guest appearance in Stockholm gath-ered after the final performance at the home of a Swedish-Estonian architect in Stockholm’s Old Town without permission, a gathering depicted in the Soviet Estonian press as a kidnapping by exiled Estonians. Arvo Pärt was able to leave Estonia because he had a wife with a Jewish background, a population group that the authorities at the time preferred to see emigrate.

At a discussion in connection with one of the festival’s concerts, Salonen also spoke of the practical and ideological difficulties that a young Finnish  musician encountered in attempts to achieve an open cultural exchange with nearby Leningrad. In the same discussion, author Per Olov Enquist mainly focused on the lack of interest in the Baltic States from the West and especially Sweden as one reason there was so little contact during the Cold War years. For various reasons this seemed particularly true of literature. But many will surely recall the significant interest generated in the West in economic reform in Eastern Europe during the 1960s and the rather generally inclusive convergence theory, which envisioned a synthesis of various systems. From a different perspective — Tartu in the 1980s — Janika Soovere Sjöquist (teacher at the Estonian School in Stockholm, born in Tartu) related how her image of the distance to the West was characterized by the official portrayal of the capitalist world.

The ability of music to build bridges where language and words fail is an old idea — in part a cliché, but with a grain of truth that Salonen emphasized. He pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon domination of literature, television, and film does not hold for music. This point was also underscored during the festival in a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” by the Swedish Radio Choir and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, where conductor Daniel Harding again showed his deep understanding of the German Romantic repertoire and baritone Thomas Quasthoff, among others, provided the work with dramatic color. In Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” with Riccardo Muti as conductor, the Swedish Radio Choir and the Bavarian Radio Choir were able to demonstrate that cultural relations during the Baltic Sea Festival flow in many directions, not just between East and West. ≈

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