When many festivals and summer academies had to shut their doors because of the pandemic, the Riga Jurmala Music Festival did everything to build a strong presence online, including live masterclasses with the best gear available and prestigious teachers. We met Toms Ostrovskis, Associate Professor at the Latvian Academy of Music and Director of the Riga Jurmala Festival Academy, to talk about this exciting and stimulating enterprise and about his plans for next year.

Toms Ostrovskis
© Archives of Jāzeps Vītols, Latvian Academy of Music

Pierre Liscia: You are associate professor at the Latvian Academy of Music. How do you feel in this peculiar situation?

Toms Ostrovskis: 
Well, I feel twofold. Since March, we have acquired a lot of knowledge on how to do online things. Of course, I fully realize the importance of personal contact in teaching. But that said, when the students record themselves, they strive to become better in their own eyes. In a lesson, it can be a bad day or a good day, but on a recording, you don't have this kind of excuse. That is also a very good development strategy for a teacher because when you record your own advice, sometimes it looks rather ridiculous. So you have to work on your presentation.

For a student, recording themselves can also be useful, because there are so many competitions with video preselection...

That led us to face another challenge: not all students have microphones and good laptops. Latvia has some of the fastest internet access in the world, but if you don't have a device, what's the use? So we have spent a lot of time in educating students on how to use Zoom, so we can do quality teaching. Not all students have good instruments at home, so the Academy have shipped some to them.

Why do you think that 2020 was a good year to launch the Riga Jurmala Festival Academy,  despite the pandemic?

This came from guest musicians themselves, like the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. They are excellent friends of the festival and said they would love to meet some young musicians and work with them. When I saw the names on the teachers’ roster, I realized that for the Latvian Academy of Music it's next to impossible to get these names. So it was a stellar opportunity to improve our education process.

So at the beginning, was the Festival Academy intended to be exclusively for Latvian students?

In fact, we were thinking at several levels. The first one is invitations. Since we're connected to all of Europe through Erasmus, we can really get the best talents through a democratic process. Level two is Baltic involvement. The third level was intended to be international. The international level, we thought, would be very good for orchestral instruments, because we had planned two days with eight to twelve BRSO musicians doing masterclasses. And we got a lot of replies, as we asked for just a ten-minute recording for the selection process, and I think that students were really happy to have the possibility to learn with one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Because nowadays, we still don't give enough support in orchestral instrument training. If the recording was good, we offered the travel and scholarship. For this year, we still have all these hopes, if the pandemic does not happen.

It is much easier to study abroad today, for instance with the Erasmus program. Why do you think it is still important to study in a summer academy?

In Latvia the music high school was founded by Jāzeps Vitols, the harmony teacher to Prokofiev in St. Petersburg. When Latvia was finally established as a country, we needed all the institutions to be marked by our national culture. But of course we understand how important it is to forge professional contacts. These are opportunities that all young musicians always value, that is why we were planning a quite extensive social part. We were planning to admit all the Academy participants to the concerts of the festival, and we were also planning, let’s say, parties, or meetings of participants. Of course, during one hour of masterclass, you may get insights, but from one hour of meeting, you could get a gig, or even a new teacher for the next four years. We also had the idea of planning concerts with a very few selected Academy students. It was supposed to be very vibrant, live and adaptive.

In your programming for 2021, you give an important place to young artists...

It's always a good policy to have artists of various generations, because what young artists maybe lack in experience, they give back in passion. Regarding the Academy, we plan to do maybe a live chat between our young guests (like Alexandre Kantorow, Yoav Levanon) and academists. I'm sure that 90% of them will ask: How did you get where you are? And what do I need to do to get there? It could be quite revealing, and definitely stimulating.

Do you think there are other ways than actual concerts and masterclasses for an Academy/Festival to exist?

When the pandemic started in March, we took the decision to do quality online learning, on an exceptional level. We used the Latvian Radio studio with a Steinway concert grand piano, and the best professional video and audio equipment we have in the country. We did 30 lessons altogether, with soloists of the BRSO and three-stars soloists, like Leif Ove Andsnes, Mischa Maisky or Miloš. All are now available on YouTube. We were always using a 50 inch screen with Zoom, plus extra live stereo settings, so they could always see and hear the master properly. And we were using wireless earbuds. Students were a bit sceptical initially, but in the end, some of them forgot to take them out! We had to run after them to get them back! 30% of the students said that it was so immersive that they did actually, in the end, forget that it was online. In fact, we had practically 100% positive reviews. We did everything to build a strong online festival, using our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages and our YouTube channel. For example, the masterclasses were always live-streamed, with a possibility for the audience to ask questions.

In 2021, BRSO and Concertgebouw Orchestra soloists will certainly be on board with digital presence, plus three-star soloists. We are confident: this year, because of the pandemic, the festival has received three times more offers from agencies than the previous years. If we have a possibility to plan live masterclasses in Riga this summer, application forms will be on our webpage, four or five months before the beginning of the masterclasses.

Digital learning at the Riga Jurmala Academy
© Riga Jurmala Academy

Can you already tell us some names?

Reacting to the events surrounding the pandemic, in summer 2020 the Riga Jurmala Academy changed its initial format to online masterclasses for students from the Baltic countries. Taking this summer’s positive feedback into consideration, the Riga Jurmala Academy will restart its online work in early December this year and will continue until the summer of 2021, when on-site lessons are expected to take place. The first online masterclasses will see the participation from the principal musicians of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Renaud Capuçon. We have already approached most of the artists from the festival’s 2021 roster and we will announce every online masterclass on the go, whereas the schedule of physical masterclasses will be announced for public applications in Spring 2021.

In Latvia, a third of the culture budget is devoted to musical education. Where does this strong musical tradition come from? 

We have a very rich Latvian culture of singing. Since 1873, we have this National Song Festival, which now involves one third of the population. Since the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940, singing became a sort of hidden protest. There were songs with coded lyrics. And of course, we have Daina, our national poetry, which is a bit like Haiku in Japan, if you want. In various regions, most of them have melodies with which they were sung during work in the fields.

The anti-Soviet movement in Latvia has been called the singing revolution. Do you think that music could be a weapon for young artists against the pandemic?

Absolutely. It's fantastic to see how quite a few students who may have been a bit lazy during normal studies suddenly send me twelve recordings a week! Yes, music definitively generates health in these times.

As a student, you must have taken part in a lot of summer academies. What did you particularly like in these?

Oh yes, I participated in quite a few! My greatest memories comes from a Guildhall summer school in Greece. Our schedule was, wake up and play for three hours. One hour swimming, then dinner, practice three hours again, swimming for one hour, then concert. Next day: repeat! And it sounds like “oh my god, it's so exhausting”. It isn't. In a summer academy, you can do in two weeks what you were doing in three months. And the concerts were so lively and great. I'm trying to take from this: the Riga Jurmala Festival Academy will take place in our own Latvian music academy. So we will have plenty of room also for socializing. And in the evening, with your peers, you could go to the concert and afterwards, disperse into the Old City and do... whatever you do when you're young. So I think the winning formula for an academy is: social aspect, professional aspect – plus summer, of course!

This article was sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Bureau