In the grand scheme of things there are not many summer festivals right next to the sea. Jūrmala, Latvia’s leading bathing and spa resort just outside the capital Riga, is one of the exceptions. Now in its fifth year, and not to be confused with the recently inaugurated Riga Jūrmala Festival with its focus on major international orchestras and soloists, the Jūrmala Festival is much more homespun. It is not, however, without its own spectacular events. Where else could you expect to have a festival opening at 4 o’clock in the morning with Iveta Apkalna, titular organist at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie and one of a group of internationally recognised Latvian stars, performing organ music at Dzintari Beach while the sun rises?

Aleksandrs Antonenko and Līga Gita Zīriņa
© Krista Grike

The open-air concert hall at Dzintari, less than a hundred metres from endless white sandy beaches, was built in 1962, can accommodate some 2000 concertgoers and is the venue for the week-long festival. The parkland complex also includes a smaller brick-built hall dating from 1936 which is fronted by a huge sculpture of Arvīds Jansons, father of Mariss and a major figure in the Latvian musical tradition.

The opening concert consisted of no fewer than fifteen separate items under the banner of “Born in Latvia”, with Latvia’s Centenary Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ainārs Rubiķis. There was no programme-book to accompany the events; instead the pieces were introduced by two compères, and the two large projection screens either side of the stage carried details of the works to be played. These screens also displayed camera footage throughout the course of the three-hour-long evening: it was a shame that an inexplicable time-delay resulted in an irritating visual mismatch during all the vocal pieces.

The programme itself was completely eclectic and idiosyncratic: I can’t imagine many festival promoters programming “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons for solo marimba and strings to sit alongside an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s New World a-Comin’, in which the virtuoso piano part was played by Vestards Šimkus, himself the composer of two piano concertos and a range of chamber music. Here, as in Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, with Grēta Graņtina as soloist, it was clear where the innate musical sympathies of these young Latvian musicians lay. It was swing, pure and simple, which with all its spiced-up syncopation produced an infectious swaying of bodies and faces wreathed in happy smiles. It is rhythm above all that connects most powerfully with young people, shown off to engaging effect in the final work, Arturo Márquez’ Conga del fuego, one of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s party pieces and a celebration of the mariachi tradition.

Vestards Šimkus
© Krista Grike

It was something of a challenge to kick off the evening with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Most of the notes were there, but only just, and Rubiķis, a past winner of the Bamberg Mahler Conducting Competition who has been in charge of Berlin’s Komische Oper since 2018, was keen to press on, losing a lot of the majesty and muddying the thrilling counterpoint in those sections where the full range of the orchestra is unfurled. Perhaps not surprisingly, the percussion section seemed most at home.

The Jūrmala Festival takes a particular pride in inviting Latvian musicians who have already made their way internationally to perform in its concerts. Making two vocal contributions was the tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko (more of him later in the week), first in the duet “Lippen schweigen” from Lehár’s The Merry Widow, in which he was partnered by Līga Gita Zīriņa, and then in an aria from a Latvian opera. Prior to this concert I wasn’t even aware of the existence of a composer named Arvīds Žilinskis, who took the inspiration for his The Golden Horse from the legendary symbolism of Rainis, one of Latvia’s great pantheon of literary figures.

Completing the roll-call of stars was Apkalna herself in two pieces from the French repertory. First off was the opening Allegro vivace – not the ubiquitous Toccata! – from Widor’s Organ Symphony no. 5 Opus 42 no. 1. Later she was partnered by the pianist Kārlis Gusts Zariņš in Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variation Op.18, a work that was dedicated to a fellow organist of similar accomplishment, Saint-Saëns. The camerawork during both pieces revealed Apkalna’s considerable pedal dexterity as well as her authoritative keyboard manner. One recurring feature in this opening concert was the way in which the stars have returned to mentor – Apkalna and Zariņš, for instance – young musicians who have yet to complete their studies. Viva Latvia!

Alexander Hall's press trip to Latvia was funded by Dzintari Concert Hall