Martin Engstroem © Sedrik Nemeth | Verbier 2018
Martin Engstroem
© Sedrik Nemeth | Verbier 2018

Thinking big comes naturally to Martin Engstroem, who founded the renowned Verbier Festival 25 years ago and is about to launch another ambitious project, this time in Latvia. It’s no good launching a new festival with a series of small-scale recitals, he says. To get noticed “you need to start with a scream”. That scream – albeit a very melodious one – looks likely to be heard from a great distance this summer when no fewer than four world-class orchestras will put the new Riga Jurmala Music Festival firmly on the musical map.

And that’s important not only from an artistic perspective but also from a social and economic one, says Engstroem, who describes Riga and Jurmala as beautiful, historic secrets waiting to be discovered by the curious musical traveller. And crucially – recognising that the modern tourist often builds a short break around a special event – his new festival will not be held over one continuous season but instead over four special weekends, taking place between 21 July and 1 September.

Each of these weekends will be anchored by a great orchestra – this year the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Israeli Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra – with equally starry soloists, including pianists Murray Perahia, Yuja Wang and Seong-Jon Cho, violinist Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky. (Click here to read the full festival preview).

But why Latvia? “There are several reasons,” says Engstroem. “I was born just across the Baltic in Stockholm – across the lake, if you like – so this is familiar territory for me. I married when I was 25 and we honeymooned in Jurmala, which is a lovely seaside resort, so I am fond of it. And in 1978 it was still one of the places where the Soviet Union sent musicians for their holidays. They were organised from Moscow and they were told where they could have a vacation and given a free apartment, so it has many musical associations. It’s an amazing, very special place with a 15-kilometre white-sand beach.”

Jurmala's stunning seaside
Jurmala's stunning seaside

Jurmala’s personal and historic musical associations helped Engstroem decide to accept the invitation to create a new festival for Latvia. That invitation came from the BMS Foundation, a board of wealthy Latvians who want to raise the country’s profile and boost its economy by supporting classical music. With a population of only two million, it’s important that Latvia attracts foreign visitors to swell the nation’s coffers. Research by the consultants McKinsey in 2006 and 2014, commissioned by Engstroem, showed that classical music attracts a worldwide audience, whereas pop festivals mostly attract people from the immediate locality, albeit in their thousands. Investing in classical music makes sense if you want to engender interest in your country.

“Verbier is a different animal,” explains Engstroem. “It’s in the Swiss mountains and the resort is well-known. It’s also a dead end – you can’t just be passing by, you have to want to be there. It works. But Riga and Jurmala are still not well known; in fact the Baltic countries are unknown to lots of people, and yet they are easy to reach by low-cost airlines. We wanted to create a festival that will raise eyebrows. Having four top orchestras play two concerts each in a weekend is a luxury that not many festivals can offer – or afford. I’m very lucky to have this board behind me.”

He had just one year to organise the first season with his long-time professional collaborator Miguel Estaban, so how did he manage to persuade these orchestras to add these dates to their rosters at quite short notice, particularly in summer holiday time? “Well, when you’ve worked in this environment for many years people take your call, so it’s easier, but chiefly I think it is because we are striving to make this a human experience for the players as well as the audience, so we say bring your partner, bring your family, have some time by the sea.”

Latvian National Opera © Daiga Viksna
Latvian National Opera
© Daiga Viksna

He is keen to build a family atmosphere around the festival, and believes that continuity is key, hoping that Mariss Jansons’ Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, for instance, will return over the years so that an audience can really get to know an orchestra and its sound. “I’m so pleased that Mariss is opening our first season. He’s a superstar in Latvia; he was born in Riga.” That opening gala concert will take place at the Latvian National Opera in Riga, a splendid gilded theatre dating from the 1860s. Old Riga is a UNESCO world heritage site and the city, the country’s capital, boasts rich and varied architecture, including a medieval cathedral, timber houses, art nouveau apartment blocks and the National Library, opened in 2014, the year Riga was European Capital of Culture.

Plans are being drawn up for a new concert hall in the city and comprehensive restoration is proposed for the Wagnersaal, a small 19th-century hall in the street named after Richard Wagner, who lived and worked in Riga in the 1830s.

Engstroem explained that Jurmala’s Dzintari Concert Hall will host the festival’s other weekends. It has recently undergone a multi-million euro renovation, offering an intimate venue for chamber music and a 2,000-seat concert hall, open-sided in the summer.

The festival aims to increase the number of weekends to five next year and six in 2021. “If we sell well we can create more events,” said Engstroem. “We have a range of reasonable ticket prices so that everybody can enjoy the music.”

Dzintari Concert Hall © Renars Koris
Dzintari Concert Hall
© Renars Koris

While the festival wants to attract an international audience it is also very keen to introduce the world’s great orchestras to the Latvian people themselves, many of whom may not have had an opportunity to hear them play live before. (Latvians are very musical people who, like the Swedes, love to sing. A song festival in Riga last year, celebrating Latvia’s 100th anniversary, attracted 40,000 performers and 500,000 spectators – that’s more than a quarter of the population.)

Engstroem is also determined to involve young local talent in the festival. In Switzerland he created the Verbier Academy, where young musicians are coached by top names in the business, and while it is currently too early to establish such a venture in Latvia, the intent is to involve the nation’s young musicians as much as possible. “The youth factor is very, very important to us,” said Engstroem. “We want to inspire both local and international talent, perhaps encourage them to attend rehearsals and add some well-known teachers to show them the way. Later I would like to create a performing platform for young musicians.”

And that’s important for the concertgoers, too. The profile of the audience in Latvia will be different to Verbier’s, with a younger average age, used to hopping onto low-cost airlines to explore exciting new places. So the Riga Jurmula Music Festival looks set to be an adventure for everybody – the organisers, the performers and those filling the seats, waiting for that moment at the gala opening when the baton goes down and the magic begins.


This interview was sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Bureau