Saturday 17 April 2021

When 2020 forced the cancellation of the first Riga Jurmala Academy in Latvia, it moved its programme of masterclasses on-line: I find out more from director Toms Ostrovskis

Toms Ostrovskis and student during Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Leif Ove Andsnes (Photo Reinis Oliņš)
Toms Ostrovskis and student during Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Leif Ove Andsnes (Photo Reinis Oliņš)

When the pandemic cancelled the 2020 edition of the Riga Jurmala Music Festival in Latvia, it would have seemed to be the end of its sister event, the Riga-Jurmala Academy,  academy's director Toms Ostrovskis and his team had other ideas.

The Riga Jurmala Academy is a programme of masterclasses organised under the auspices of the Riga Jurmala Music Festival in collaboration with the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, in Riga, Latvia. The festival made its auspicious debut in 2019, bringing leading symphony orchestras and conductors to Riga and Jurmala and presenting a programme of symphonic concerts, chamber music and solo recitals. Its 2020 programme included the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with their new artistic director Lahav Shani, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and its long-serving artistic director Yuri Temirkanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.  

Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Lionel Cottet (Photo Reinis Oliņš)
Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Lionel Cottet (Photo Reinis Oliņš)

The academy was to be a new initiative for the 2020 festival. In the event, the 2020 festival was cancelled and the academy had to quickly rethink its model and its plans, moving the programme on-line and transforming from a festival event to a year-round one. I recently chatted to the Toms about the challenges of running the academy under current restrictions, the technical solutions they have come up with and the way forward.

The idea for the academy came after the successful first festival, with the idea of running educational activities in parallel to the festival, taking advantage of the artists who were performing at the festival, artists of a high artistic level who do not often come to Latvia. This would provide for masterclasses, given by the distinguished artists, for emerging artists alongside the concerts, with the students also attending the concerts and receptions, thus able to meet the artists informally as well as in the more formal masterclass situation.

It seemed ideal, but when the second festival was cancelled they decided that the academy needed to come up with an alternative way of functioning during the crisis. The concept of doing masterclasses on-line was considered, but Toms and his team were dubious because of the technical limitations, as a lot of the on-line material available was not of great quality, and because the distinguished artists giving the masterclasses would need to get involved in the technicalities of streaming the masterclass. 

For a masterclass to be really successful, the content needs to be inspirational which means that the sound should be as close as possible to live. So the academy explored what might be needed technically, using Zoom but with professional technical teams at both ends, if possible. They started experimenting and found great partners with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Members of the orchestra gave the first two masterclasses and in the process helped to solve the technical problems and perfect the technology. The feedback from the students was that the quality was unexpectedly good.

So, the academy is offering a programme of on-line masterclasses during the 2020/21 season. These can be one to one, or one to man, solo or orchestral, or take the form of meetings or discussions and a number have been part performance and part masterclass. The exact format is flexible and up to the artist giving the masterclass, so that cellist Mischa Maisky held a discussion and played, whilst baritone Benjamin Appl was in conversation with four students as well as one-to-one masterclasses.

The initial intention for the academy was for the students to come from three different streams. Students from Baltic states would come either by invitation (usual from one of the music academies in the Baltic states) or via competition, and the international students. For the international students, it was envisioned that they would be mainly participating in the orchestral masterclasses as there would be the biggest number of slots. With the move on-line, the students have been limited to those from the Baltic states.

Feedback involves doing interviews with the students on camera and they have received no bad reviews this way. Whilst the feedback has been detailed, Toms admits that the positivity might be partly down to politeness! The sound and visual quality have proved to be unexpectedly good with almost no latency, so the students are happy. The tutors have also been positive, particularly about the preciseness of the arrangements.

Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Alice Coote (Photo Reinis Oliņš)
Riga Jurmala Academy masterclass with Alice Coote (Photo Reinis Oliņš)

Toms admits that there is a lot of stigma to on-line teaching, and it can never be the same as live teaching. But when there is a lack of teaching at this level in Latvia, and with the pandemic making this worse, getting advice from a high-level musician from outside Latvia is beneficial.

The festival is planning for 2021 with concerts in July, August and September and so the academy is discussing what the future should be. But the likelihood is that there will be both live and on-line elements to the academy events, with live events during the weekends of July, August and September when the festival is running and on-line events for the rest of the year.

For the live events, orchestral musicians give their masterclasses after their concerts or sometimes on other free days, but it is worth bearing in mind that ten teachers each doing a masterclass of three or four hours will eat up all of the Latvian Music Academy's rehearsal rooms. With distinguished soloists, they agree to a three or four-hour slot and it is up to the soloist where they place it in their schedule, some give masterclasses before their concerts and some afterwards.

And when the live festival takes place, it is planned that there will be events involving students or past students to support the young artists.

Toms is himself a pianist and is a professor at the Latvian Music Academy. He sees this as an advantage when it comes to planning the Riga-Jurmala Academy. Such planning involves both administrative and artistic decisions and he sees himself doing more 'artistic fighting'. He has an understanding of the needs of both teachers and students, having both participated in masterclasses and given them. 

If you get a big name to give a masterclass then in PR terms that is a success, but Toms can come from a different angle and worry about other logistics such as where the artist might warm up. These can seem small points for an administrator but from an artistic point of view are essential. He can be flexible with the teachers as a colleague and can talk to the students and hear concerns not heard by the visiting artists.

As a professor at the Latvian Music Academy, administration is taking up more of his time but he continues to perform and in fact, his post at the Latvian Music Academy requires him to perform. On 24 April he will be giving a concert of French vocal music which will be broadcast on-line, and he will be giving a programme of Nordic music for violin and piano with the Latvian Music Academy's head of string department. This is planned for June or July and will include both Icelandic and Nordic composers.

Toms Ostrovskis
Toms Ostrovskis
When I ask if he always wanted to be a pianist, he comments that as a boy he wanted to be a pilot! But his grandmother was a distinguished actress and understood the value of cultural education, and he started learning the piano when he was six. This was still under the Soviet system, so it was very hard work and something like being on a hamster wheel, and work ramped up in intensity until the end of secondary school when all sorts of questions hit you.

Toms likens it to the scene in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh where the animals are testing what Tigger likes to find out what kind of animal he is. So Toms found himself asking questions. Am I a pianist? Do I play the piano? Studying at the Latvian Music Academy was supposed to answer these questions, and he decided that playing the piano was something that he liked to do, he felt connected to the instrument. And the five years he spent studying the piano at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Ronan O'Hora certainly helped.

When I ask about his piano heroes, the first name is Vladimir Ashkenazy, particularly as Toms grew up with Ashkenazy's Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concerto recordings. Like many young men, he would drive around in his red Ford Escort with music blaring, only for Toms it as Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninov! Another admired pianist is András Schiff, particularly his Bach playing. Tom comments that he saw Schiff teaching at the Wigmore Hall and was impressed at how Schiff related everything to everything. Another pianist he admires is Yefim Bronfman,  who he is hoping to be able to hear in the flesh.

There are plans for live events for 2021, and the festival has around 75% of its original concerts still planned. But all they can do is hope, and Toms admits he is an idealist and wants music to be happening.

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