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.”