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In Latvia and Estonia, Friction of Old and New Creates Music

October 24, 2011

David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 23, 2011

Somewhere down there in the darkness, a runway has to exist.

The view from the Baltic Air commuter flight during the lingering summer twilight (which lasts until 11 p.m. in July) suggests that the ground is near. But where are the lights? The terminal? Once on the ground in the Latvian capital of Riga, only a dollhouse-size building off in the distance is seen on the flat terrain. How can there be so much open space in a micro-country?

This puzzling prelude to one of Europe's most storied capitals became typical over my 10 days in the Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, where cities are like avocados: mundane and crusty on the outside, rich and exotic on the inside -- and all eerily uncrowded by northeastern U.S. standards.

These cities demand to be explored. About two-thirds of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, survived World War II, and the city is Old Europe at its most atmospheric with winding cobblestone streets, orange tile roofs, charmingly decrepit churches with steeples that seem to stagger, and, oddly enough, hills.

Most old European cities have the hills ground out of them. Not Tallinn, whose lovely hillsides overlook the harbor. On Friday nights, young people gather on them, drinking beer and laughing about the Finns arriving by ferry, only momentarily, to buy cheap Estonian vodka.

Riga is more posh -- an art nouveau architectural showcase in an old city area whose fortress walls were surrounded by a still-extant moat -- now a beautifully landscaped, swan-inhabited park. It survived the war better than Tallinn, at least in terms of buildings, which advertise themselves in vivid, Mediterranean colors.

Both are beach towns, Riga more than Tallinn, though Estonia was particularly popular among Russian aristocracy. Peter the Great's ornate summer palace -- built as he was dying of syphilis -- survives in pristine condition in Tallinn, surrounded by ornate gardens, and feels like a time-warp journey into Imperial Russia.

The best focus for Baltic excursions is cultural. Latvian and Estonian composers, conductors, and singers are the new classical superstars of the Western world, having honed their talents in superb local opera companies and symphony orchestras.

The Nargen Festival takes place on an Estonian island inhabited mostly by rusty Soviet war machinery and a crumbling church built by Swedish fishermen. Riga has an annual International Sacred Music Festival -- in a country where religious music is still considered edgy, since any such worship was grounds for ostracism during Soviet occupation.

Now that the Baltic republics are nearly 20 years free of that, English is widely spoken and Estonia claims to be the Internet capital of Europe. The Western notion of body culture has hit Riga: Monday morning rush hour looks like an invasion from Los Angeles, with highly moussed hair and tight clothes that show off gym-toned bodies and beach tans.

Yet there's a parallel-universe quality. Walk into a camera shop in Tallinn looking for a new battery for your GE digital camera, and the clerks regard it as an artifact from outer space.

"We've never seen anything like this," said the clerk.

"But it's General Electric."

"What's that?"

Estonians can be brusque. They still aren't used to outsiders and the clueless questions they might ask. In the Soviet years, some cities didn't even allow foreigners to stay overnight because they were near military installations. Latvians can be awfully guarded. There's nothing frivolous about this culture. Avant-garde music is better represented in music stores than the latest Andrea Bocelli CD.

My single favorite Baltic moment: An ancient church that had only just been rebuilt from World War II ruins, but repurposed as an art gallery. You could still smell the fresh plaster. A father brought his young son, a classical guitarist, for the sake of being heard in a larger room. The kid quietly played a simple, melodic sonata by Domenico Scarlatti. You could feel the healing.

These countries are also catching up with themselves. Many ancient ruins in Tallinn are a complete mystery. Periodically, you walk over a plexiglass panel in the middle of an already ancient street, underneath which are more ancient city ruins. How old? What exactly are the ruins? Nobody is sure. The city's network of underground tunnels has a murky origin.

If anybody ever knew what was what, they were lost when so much of the population was killed or deported during and after World War II. With so many assaults on the national identity, it's no wonder that the cities have incongruous layers.

Estonia's provincial capital of Tartu, said to be the oldest city in a country dating to 1030, initially resembles some quiet Canadian suburb until you suddenly arrive in the town square, with heart-stopping, neoclassical architecture, but in a color scheme suggesting Caribbean pastels. Yet the square has free Wi-Fi. So even if you're the only person there in late afternoon -- where is everybody? -- you can connect with someone. And if foreigners are treated strangely, it's because they weren't allowed to stay overnight in Tartu until recent years.

The resort town of Haapsalu (meaning "aspen grove" and dating to 1279) is a Victorian time-travel experience with 19th-century resort buildings where Tchaikovsky is said to have written one of his symphonies while partaking of the healing mud from the nearby Baltic Sea. The open-air Haapsalu Castle is there for the climbing when not a venue for outdoor jazz concerts.

But where is everybody? Certainly, they aren't traveling from one city to another, connected with two-lane highways. Trains mostly don't exist. Buses are among the few options. Often, Tallinn residents have never visited Riga, 175 miles away -- and vice versa.

Besides that provinciality, there's an undercurrent of bitterness, no doubt left by the history of domination by other cultures. The English-language tour guide in Riga breaks from her soothing, congenial tone with the sentence, "And this piece of pompous Soviet architecture is . . . ." Tour guides also caution against swimming in the Baltic Sea because the departing Russians polluted the water by scuttling ships that weren't worth taking home. And then there was that nuclear reactor nobody knew about -- which may have had a series of leaks.

The "where's everybody?" question is hardly idle. Between the Nazi and Soviet occupations, 50,000 Baltic Germans left Latvia in 1939. About 34,000 Latvians were deported or killed in 1940, 200,000 died in World War II, and 75,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis. About 300,000 more fled the Soviet occupation, and after the war an additional 190,000 Latvians (many of them business leaders and patriots) were deported or imprisoned.

Though Estonia was once considered one of Europe's most comfortable places for Jews, fewer than a dozen (yes, dozen) survived World War II, during which Estonia was the home of concentration camps whose dead (Estonian and otherwise) numbered 125,000. So after the war, when the Russians began building factories in the Baltic republics as part of an economic-recovery program, there weren't enough locals to work in them.

It's amazing that any national or artistic identity can still be recovered. Yet the Baltic identity survived in its strong amateur singing culture. In fact, huge national singing festivals in Tallinn involving a quarter of the population became a focal point in Estonia's liberation from Russia.

Repertoire shifted from Russian to Estonian in the huge, saucer-shaped stadium at the Tallinn song festival grounds -- with police so outnumbered that nothing could be done. Punk-rock groups also get credit in the so-called "singing revolution," giving guerrilla concerts and then hiding out from police in Tallinn's underground tunnels. However voice-based it may be, modern Baltic classical music breaks out of the confines of foreign influences and is inclined to go to any number of extremes -- and do so in symbolic places.

At last year's Nargen Festival, the main event was a large-chorus concert televised live from a former ammunition factory in Tallinn. Ostensibly, the celebration was the for the 80th birthday of composer Veljo Tormis, who played a significant role in the "singing revolution." The larger symbolism -- making music where bullets were once manufactured -- didn't stop there. Tormis, who enshrines near-dead regional dialects in his vocal music, was celebrated with music he wrote for the Moscow Olympics in 1980 but with all sorts of covert messages that were lost on the Russians.

After the concert, listeners trudged up the gravel utility road from the factory to one of Tallinn's main streets, many wearing high heels and evening clothes. On the right, I noticed a majestically crumbling building as long as two football fields. The ceiling had caved in. Walls were far from perpendicular.

What, I asked, had that been? Nobody knew. One woman took it upon herself to canvass the crowd. As it turns out, Russian warships were made there, dating back to czarist times. But other things -- mainly foliage -- were now growing in its place. While such memories are fading, history is being reclaimed.

Tips for Travelers to the Baltics

Getting there

During much of the year, the number of daily international flights going into and out of Tallinn and Riga can be counted on one hand. I needed three flights to get from Philadelphia to Tallinn, with connections in Germany. Fare: $1,000 or so.

With flexible dates, better fares can be had flying into Helsinki, Finland, a major hub, for $800, and completing the journey to Tallinn by ferry across the Baltic Sea in just a few hours. The boats are as large and luxurious as cruise ships and run frequently because Finns often pop over to Tallinn to buy cheap vodka. Ferry rides are longer and less frequent from Helsinki to Riga. But commuter flights can be found for as little as $50 on Baltic Air.

Land travel between cities is usually by bus rather than rail. Daytime departures are often every hour, though bathrooms are sometimes nonexistent and roads rarely have more than two lanes.

Staying there

Lodging in Tallinn and Riga can be shockingly reasonable for major European cities. Double rooms in centrally located three-star hotels can be as little as $75 per night. No matter how reasonable the hotel, though, stay away from the airports in both cities: Tallinn's airport is in the most charmless part of town, and the Riga airport is nowhere near the city.

In Tallinn, I happily stayed at the homey, three-star Hotel St. Barbara, at the edge of the old city. In Riga, I was perfectly happy at the Ramada Inn, a 10-minute walk from the old city. One word of caution: Request a room that is not on the street. On weekends, Baltic partying goes on all night.

Best lodging source:

Seeing the sights

In both cities, general bus tours are recommended for getting the lay of the land. Museums and historic churches are everywhere, and the guidebooks -- which manage to make even the Tramway Museum of Tallinn sound worthwhile -- don't readily help you prioritize.

In Tallinn, the two hottest sights are the Kumu Museum of Art, an architectural wonder that documents Estonia's emerging postcommunist artistic identity, and the Tunnel Tour, a journey through the city's 17th-century underground tunnels, which served as air-raid shelters in World War II and hideouts for punk rockers in the 1980s.

Peter the Great's Kadriorg Palace offers a time-warp trip to Imperial Russia, while the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds looks like a landed flying saucer but was where the famous "singing revolution" took place.

Riga is a great city for architectural sightseeing, with the Riga Cathedral, dozens of art nouveau buildings on Albert Street, picturesque townhouses dating to the 15th century, and fort towers left over from when the city was surrounded by protective walls. Somewhat incongruously, Riga is near the seaside resort town of Jurmala with three major beaches, changing rooms, playgrounds, and Victorian architecture.


Both cities teem with nightlife. There's a young population, lots of street traffic, and plenty of music of all sorts pouring out of unexpected doorways. The dominant music institutions are Tallinn's Estonian National Opera ( and Riga's Latvian National Opera ( Not for nothing has Estonia produced a dynasty of symphonic conductors (Neeme Jarvi and his sons Paavo and Kristjan), while Latvia has contributed rising stars such as conductor Andris Nelsons and opera singer Elina Garanca.

In Talinn, the midsummer-to-early-fall Nargen Festival presents a range of concerts encompassing folk, classical, and jazz -- plus mixtures of them -- in venues as far off as the island of Naissaar ( In Riga, the annual August International Sacred Music Festival includes choral and orchestral concerts with repertoire ranging from the avant-garde to Andrew Lloyd Webber ( In both festivals, the music of the popular Estonian mystic, Arvo Pärt, is rarely far away.

- David Patrick Stearns

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at [email protected].

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