Esa Pekka Salonen in action, photo: Baltic Sea Festival.

Conference reports Stockholm as the Baltic hub

There are few clearer examples of how cultural exchanges across the Baltic Sea have evolved than the annual Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm, which took place for the tenth time this year.

Published on on October 1, 2012

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There are few clearer examples of how cultural exchanges across the Baltic Sea have evolved than the annual Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm, which took place for the tenth time this year. Once upon a time, the Baltic Sea Festival stood for a completely different kind of event – support for the so-called nuclear free zone at assemblies in the GDR. Something of the background to this evolution was reported in Baltic Worlds September 2010: vol. III:3.

Now it may be enough to say that the Baltic Sea Festival has also brought a solution to an old problem: giving Stockholm, after many years of failure, a fitting event that focuses on music and yet also embraces the environment, history, and politics. It is as if Stockholm had regained its role as the Baltic hub, once the historical basis of the city’s growth but long believed to be lost forever.

That said, it must be added that the Baltic Sea theme of the festival did not exclude widely international luminaries. This year’s festival at Berwaldhallen began with the noted performance of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” a remarkable double exposure of singers on the stage and a video installation by Bill Viola, directed by Peter Sellars. Viola otherwise had a prominent place with a video installation included in the “Passions” exhibition at the Swedish National Museum last spring.

Tempo and agogics in “Tristan and Isolde” were not, however, governed by the video, but by conductor Esa Pekka Salonen and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which displayed a surprising capacity for dramatic and lively playing in a repertoire that is not the orchestra’s ordinary fare. This was the central feature of the performance. But the stars, Lithuanian Violeta Urman and Canadian Ben Heppner in the leading roles were outshone by Finns Jukka Raisilainen as Kurwenal and the veteran Matti Salminen as Marke, King of Cornwall.

Salonen and Valery Gergiev were co-conductors of what was designated the Anniversary Concert with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It must be said that Salonen was given the job of conducting the most important part of the program, the first European performance of Anders Hillborg’s “Sirens” for soprano, mezzo, choir, and orchestra. The Sirens in this context are the temptresses who lured Odysseus in his journey over the sea. Among the many merits of this work, which lasts more than half an hour, and its performance were the virtually seamless transitions between the Swedish Radio Choir’s parts and those of the soloists, in an uncommon reserve and concentration. Gergiev’s most noted contribution was at the guest performance of the Mariinsky Ballet at the Royal Opera, with Rodion Shchedrin’s “The Little Humpbacked Horse.”

The most interesting work in a later concert called “Baltic Composers Project” with the Stockholm New Chamber Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki was the Russian composer Dmitri Kourliandski’s new “Maps of Non-Existent Cities,” a nearly colorless, seemingly removed or subterranean urban landscape, where isolated solo contributions, especially towards the end, ripped cracks in the screen.

Also noteworthy among the concerts was the tribute to the 2011 Nobel Laureate in literature, Tomas Tranströmer, who was present in Berwaldhallen when the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Choir, and soloists conducted by Thomas Dausgaard played works that he refers to in his poems or which were written for his lyrics. The audience was asked not to applaud between the works, which lead to an unusual sense of continuity from Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 2 – in a somewhat spasmodic and joyless performance – to Johannes Brahms’ “Song of Destiny” for chorus and orchestra – interpreted with a clarity that paradoxically elevated the sense of warmth. New compositions had been written by the increasingly noted Andrea Tarrodi – “Andrum Juli,” resting peacefully in itself – and Michael Christie, whose “Spår” featured Nina Stemme as the expressive soprano in a recitative-like solo part. Krister Henriksson held the unusual concert together with his recitations of poems by Tranströmer.

But the festival’s reach beyond music extended not only to literature, but other areas as well. The World Wildlife Fund seminar was held at the Finnish Embassy and the British Embassy opened its Princess Hall for Swedbank’s Baltic Region Assembly. The speakers included journalist John Chrispinsson, who talked about the forgotten Swedish history in a shared Baltic Sea region. He argued that Swedish modernity led to a lack of interest in Sweden in the Baltic States as far back as the 1920s, even though people could then study Swedish-Estonian folklore on cycling holidays. Anna Jardfeldt of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Jan Leijonhielm of the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), and professor emeritus of history Kristian Gerner discussed the Baltic Region between Russia and Germany, perhaps the only true commonality in the histories of the three countries beyond the song festivals. Gerner argued that normalization has now put a calming lid on antagonisms between the Russian-speaking and majority populations. In a following discussion with Baltic guests, attention was fixed on a serious problem: emigration from the Baltic countries, a consequence of free movements of persons that cannot be countered in any way other than stabilization and development in these countries.