Carving a place in the world of major international music festivals is no mean undertaking. For the Riga Jurmala Music Festival, it’s been a roller coaster ride: the first festival in 2019 was an outstanding success, followed by the bitter disappointment of cancellation in 2020. At a time when most classical music are looking anxiously around and within themselves, Riga Jurmala is forging onwards: the Festival announced its programme for summer 2021 on October 1st and ticket sales are well under way.

Martin T:son Engstroem
© Aline Paley

For that 2019 opening, explains Artistic Director Martin T:son Engstroem, Riga Jurmala wanted to make their presence felt, “to be on the map immediately. You could start in a low key and build it up after so many years. Or you do what we did and invest a lot from the first moment.” With 20 years of experience at the helm of the Verbier Festival, which he founded, Engstroem knows what it takes to make one’s mark; with a first line-up in 2019 of the Russian National Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony and London Symphony, no-one could have accused him of underinvesting.

The objective from the start was to bring top international talent to the attention of Latvians – and to bring Latvia to the attention of international musicians. Many of the country’s top artists, the ones with international careers, spend their summers at home with their families, so “Latvians are quite spoiled”, explains festival CEO Zane Čulkstēna, “having wonderful smaller festivals happening in every corner of the country during the summer. What we have particularly lacked for many years is international artists coming to Latvia.” The first festival, held over four summer week-ends, attracted more than 15,000 visitors, 80% of them local, which Čulkstēna thinks is a remarkable achievement, particularly given the limited time available to Engstroem and Associate Director Miguel Esteban to put together the programme and promote it.

Zane Čulkstēna
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

The biggest orchestral concerts take place at Dzintari Concert Hall, a semi-open-air venue at Jurmala, on the Baltic coast a half-hour’s drive from the capital. Engstroem’s links with Jurmala go back a long way: he honeymooned there in 1978. “I got to know Jurmala as a historical residence for Russian music life. At the time, there was a state agency in Moscow called Gosconcert, which managed all the artists’ whereabouts in the Soviet Union. Russian artists were more or less seen as soldiers for the Soviet Union, and Gosconcert had apartments in Jurmala, in this beach resort, which you could apply for. If you were Oistrakh or Richter or whatever, you could take an apartment, so there was a big community of phenomenal artists who came to Jurmala every summer, and also performed there. It was a very sentimental thing for me to come back to this place.” Riga, with its lovely opera house, is a fantastic city, he says, but it’s Jurmala which occupies a place in Engstroem’s heart.

The Dzintari is a very unusual venue: a hall that has a roof but no sides: you’re 200 metres from the sea on one side and even closer to the forest on the other. If there’s something of a breeze, musicians can hear the sea as they are playing. “It’s probably the best feeling for a summer festival, and it’s important that summer festivals in general should be a different experience for the audience than going to a concert during autumn.”

Does that affect the choice of repertoire, I ask? “Well, you have to stay a little bit away from Schoenberg or Webern or music which is sensitive to outside noise. You can play anything there, but where you go into music which is too silent, then you might be disturbed by birds or by the wind or by nature.”

The London Symphony Orchestra at the 2019 festival
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

If the festival’s artistic content is driven by Engstroem’s musicality, experience and connections, its organisation is driven by Čulkstēna’s boundless energy and optimism – which was sorely tested this summer. “We spent a month from 31st March working on four scenarios and discussing the possibilities for the festival to take place on a smaller scale or sometime later. But after a month, it became obvious to everyone that it would not be possible.” Rather than announcing the cancellation immediately, Čulkstēna took an extra month to be able to combine the bad news with the announcement that the 2021 festival would go ahead. To keep the festival fresh in people’s memories, they created outdoor events in some of Riga’s open spaces, using recorded performances. These turned out to be very popular, so much so that Čulkstēna feels under pressure to continue them even when the live part of the festival returns to normal, not least because they brought the festival to people outside its usual audience, especially families with young children.

Yuja Wang at the 2019 Festival
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

While Engstroem took the Verbier Festival heavily down the digital route this summer, Riga Jurmala is too young a festival to have the back catalogue to enable a similar approach. But the introduction of live master classes was a big success, attracting over 150,000 people (we will be publishing an interview with the Festival Academy’s director Toms Ostrovskis later this month). Also, Engstroem has initiated a digital initiative for next year in the shape of a film tribute to Mariss Jansons, who died in December: the idea is to bring together his four main orchestras (BRSO, Oslo, Concertgebouw, Pittsburgh) and have each perform one movement of a symphony.

The 2021 festival has gone on sale already, despite the inevitable uncertainties. “We knew the second wave was coming”, Čulkstēna says, “but we wanted to give people something to look forward to, we wanted to bring some optimism.” The experience so far is that audiences were thrilled to have some light at the end of the tunnel, because early ticket sales have gone extremely well, 35% up on previous years; that came as a surprise in view of the pandemic-induced drop in purchasing power. It’s helped that sales are now fully online and that people know that they will get immediate full refunds if the festival is cancelled (“it’s not like flight tickets where you can get stuck in half a year of discussions”).

Latvian National Opera, Riga
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

The roster of orchestras is as stellar as ever: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra return, together with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Royal Concertgebouw. Star soloists include Yuja Wang, George Li, Víkingur Ólafsson, Renaud Capuçon, Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming. With so much talent in the world available to him, how does Engstroem choose the artists? “There are two types of artists, I would say: there are the givers and the takers. And nowadays, in 2020-21, you definitely need those who give, those who participate. It’s difficult to deal with the old generation attitude of ‘I’m a big star, I don’t want to do interviews, I have to rest before the concert, I only rehearse between this hour and this hour.’ I grew up with a whole generation of artists who believed that being an artist had privileges. Nowadays, being an artist is also participating in your own career. You have to be as generous as you can with your audience, sometimes even talking to sponsors in dinners afterwards even though you don’t enjoy that. It doesn’t mean that you’re looking for less quality, but it means that you are looking for an artist who has a certain charisma and a certain generosity who you feel good about listening to.”

Jurmala at Sunset
© Riga Jurmala Music Festival

Engstroem very much hopes that the Festival will turn into a major way of encouraging an international audience to come to Latvia; for now, he considers the country a “Geheimtipp”, an all-too-well-kept secret. “Now with airBaltic, there are really no excuses not to go. So we hope that with the years, the international part of the audience will grow and that people will see Latvia as a very interesting, historically fascinating country, but also a very modern country with lots of fantastic restaurants. Just a fun city with lots of fun people.”

This interview was sponsored by Riga Tourism Development Bureau