Rhinegold Photo credit: © Kaupo Kikkas
National pride: Estonian Festival Orchestra

Andrew Mellor

Eyes east: the next wave of classical talent will come from the Baltic States

8:00, 6th December 2017

On 6 December, Finland will remember the day a century ago when it gained independence from Russia, thanks to its own political sleight of hand and Lenin’s mistaken belief that he had the country in his pocket. It came after years of dissatisfaction and a final series of humiliations for the Finnish people that induced countless enduring works of art.

History repeated itself across the Baltic Sea in the 1990s. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania spotted their chance and took it, literally singing their way to freedom from the USSR towards new futures that looked very bright indeed. These small, nimble countries have been among the quickest to emerge from the financial crisis and are now on the ascendant once more. Putin, feeling a little like Lenin must have as Finland forged ahead in the 1940s and 1950s, doesn’t like it one bit.

What does all this have to do with the UK classical music industry? Quite a bit, potentially. The good folk of Birmingham have recently welcomed the third Baltic chief conductor in a row to the CBSO. But it’s notable that while Sakari Oramo was a product of Finland’s phenomenal and continuing harvest of exceptional conductors, Andris Nelsons and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla have seen the focus move south across the Baltic to Latvia and Lithuania. There is every reason to believe that the trend will continue, and with a crescendo.

Looking to the future: Paavo Järvi © Julia Bayer
Looking to the future: Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer

Are the Baltic States, in fact, the new Finland? ‘In a way, yes they are,’ replied one high-profile conductor when I put that question to him recently. But he’s biased: he’s Estonian. Still, Paavo Järvi is well placed to make such a call. With the Järvi Academy, he is directly involved in nurturing a new crop of conductors from the region. His father Neeme has just returned to Estonia as a national hero, taking charge of the National Symphony Orchestra following his stint at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, promising to dedicate the rest of his life to his homeland and demanding investment in Estonian musical infrastructure.

So far, so speculative. But on the ground in Latvia and Estonia, things get a bit more real. Participatory classical music at a decent level remains a central part of life here. It is common to see exceptional young musicians busking on the streets of Riga and Tallinn, sometimes whole quartets. Start-up ensembles such as Sinfonietta Riga have the nimble vitality of their tech equivalents (the Baltic states brought you Skype and TransferWise) and sound extremely good, too.

Another such ensemble is Kristjan Järvi’s Baltic Sea Philharmonic. Yet another is Paavo Järvi’s Estonian Festival Orchestra, which combines the Lucerne model of ramming an orchestra full of fully-fledged European concertmasters and section principals (eight, in the case of the strings of the EFO alone) with a policy of giving young Estonian instrumentalists the chance to play alongside their more experienced counterparts and make contacts in the wider orchestral world.

More than anything, those musicians get the chance to break free both musically and geographically. ‘We have some players who have the potential of becoming truly great,’ says Järvi of the Estonian members of the EFO. I can well believe him. Following his orchestra through Latvia and Estonia earlier this year, it became clear that the ensemble is capable of the electricity and spontaneity associated with its forbear in Lucerne. Those lucky enough to hear the orchestra live over the summer experienced something else in addition: a form of fanfare from young and exceptionally talented Baltic musicians introducing themselves to the world.

Among the international members of the EFO is the British clarinettist Matthew Hunt. ‘The Baltic States are young countries, free from the shackles of the Soviet Union, and you feel that hunger and national pride in how their musicians play,’ he told me. ‘They go out, absorb what they can from elsewhere, and there’s no complacency at all.’ Perhaps what we were actually hearing from this orchestra – and will again as it embarks on a European tour in January – is the realisation from its young Baltic members that just as music offered them collective freedom in the 1990s, it has the potential to transform their lives all over again.

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