Symphonic music in Estonia dates back over 100 years, with the first compositions by Estonians including Rudolf Tobias’s Julius Caesar, Artur Kapp’s Don Carlos, and symphonic compositions by Heino Eller and Eduard Tubin. In recent decades, Estonian symphonic music has developed hand-in-hand with the growth of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (= ERSO; Estonian: Eesti Riiklik Sümfooniaorkester).
The ERSO traces it roots to December 18, 1926, the first concert broadcast by Tallinn Radio. The broadcast concert was performed by an ERSO predecessor, a trio headed by Hugo Schütz. The ensemble’s ranks grew steadily, and by 1939 the Radio Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra included 39 performers. In addition to radio concerts, the public enjoyed live symphonies presented by the orchestra in conjunction with guest artists from the Estonia Theatre. Conductors directing the orchestra included: Raimund Kull, Priit Nigula, Juhan Aavik and Arkadius Krull, with several prominent guest conductors adding to the in-house talent.
In 1939, one of Estonia’s most outstanding musical figures of the day, Olav Roots, accepted the role of orchestra director. With Roots as director, the Orchestra continued to perform symphonies in Tallinn throughout the WWII period. In 1942 a sinfonietta was formed of those musicians mobilized to Yaroslavl. It was with this sinfonietta that the distinguished conductor Roman Matsov began his career. In Autumn 1944, having returned to Tallinn, the sinfonietta united with the radio symphony orchestra, led by Paul Karp from 1944-1950.
In the post-war years, the Orchestra was directed by Leo Tauts, Sergei Prohhorov and Roman Matsov, who was principal conductor from 1950 to 1963. By 1956 the Orchestra had 90 members. Despite the Soviet repertoire policy of the time, Maestro Roman Matsov managed to also bring oratorial works by such greats as J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, W.A. Mozart and L.v. Beethoven to the public. For the first time in what was then the Soviet Union, Matsov also managed to give audiences the listening pleasure of works by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Carl Orff and others. It was not unusual for the Tallinn audience to be among the first to hear symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich; Tallinn was usually the third venue, only preceded by premiere performances in Moscow and Leningrad.
Neeme Järvi joined the Estonian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1960, where he continued as principal conductor from 1963-1979. Under Neeme Järvi’s direction, the Orchestra’s repertoire expanded markedly, as did its activities. Much to the delight of the public, concert tours became a regular part of the season; music recordings and broadcasts came alive with new vigor, also to the benefit of Estonian Radio and the record company Melodiya.
In 1975 the Orchestra was renamed the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. One year later, the ERSO collaborated with Estonian Television and Estonian Radio to present the regular concert series “Studio Hour with the ERSO” featuring classics as well as newer works by Estonian composers.
From 1980 to 1990, Peeter Lilje was appointed Principal Conductor. Under his direction, the Orchestra continued its radio concerts as well as recorded numerous volumes of both Estonian and World music. During Lilje’s tenure, Tobias’s oratorio Jonah’s Mission was also premiered before the Estonian public.
German-born Leo Krämer joined the ERSO as Principal Conductor for two seasons, 1991-1993. The otherwise joyous occasion of reopened Estonian borders also brought a taste of the bittersweet in the early 1990’s. New opportunities also opened before our musicians; nearly half of the Orchestra’s members discovered better career opportunities in the West, or even with our neighbors to the North - the migration marking a lull in the Orchestra’s history.
By the time Arvo Volmer was made Principal Conductor in 1993, the Orchestra had reached a low-point. But his eight seasons (1993-2001) with the ERSO proved successful. Volmer managed to create what was in essence an almost entirely new orchestra. Also noteworthy is the tremendous work done in CD recordings during Volmer’s tenure.
Next Principal Conductor and Music Director (from 2001 until 2010) of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra was a renowned performer of St. Petersburg’s new school of conductors, Nikolai Alexeev. While Alexeev’s first experience with the ERSO was as a guest conductor in 1983, the relationship has become a much closer one since 1995. From the 2002-2003 season Paavo Järvi has been active as the Artistic Adviser of the orchestra and from the 2007-2008 season Olari Elts has been appointed as the Principal Guest Conductor of ERSO.
The repertoire of ERSO includes music from the Baroque period to premiere performances of modern works. ERSO has been the first performer of the symphonic pieces of almost all Estonian composers including Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Eduard Tubin, Lepo Sumera, Eino Tamberg, Jaan Rääts, Tõnu Kõrvits, Helena Tulve and Toivo Tulev. ERSO has had three times its own resident composer: Eino Tamberg (1997-1998), Raimo Kangro (1998-1999) and Tõnu Kõrvits (2003-2004).
At present, the orchestra comprises c100 musicians and averages 60-65 concerts per season, with three to four new programmes a month. In addition to Estonian musicians, the orchestra performs with many renowned conductors and soloists from around the world.
ERSO made its first international concert tour to Romania and Bulgaria in 1972, with Neeme Järvi and Roman Matsov conducting. Since then the orchestra has gone on world tours more than 40 times: in Kuwait, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Italy and Spain, performing in such festivals as Europamusicale in Munich (Arvo Volmer, 1993), Musiksommer in Gstaad (Arvo Volmer and Andrey Boreyko, 1997), the Baltic Sea Festival (Arvo Volmer, 2005; Paavo Järvi, 2006) and Il Settembre dell’ Accademia in Verona (Olari Elts, 2008). In February 2006, ERSO, conducted by Olari Elts, performed Arvo Pärt`s music in Turin Cathedral as part of the cultural programme of the XX Olympic Winter Games. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the ERSO actively toured the Soviet Union (including the far east, and cities in Siberia and Transcaucasia) and was a regular performer in the renowned concert halls of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow.
The orchestra has performed with many world-renowned conductors, such as Hermann Abendroth, Karel Ančerl, Rudolf Barshai, Paavo Berglund, Leo Blech, Albert Coates, Valery Gergiev, Tauno Hannikainen, Mariss Jansons, Aram Khachaturian, Kirill Kondrashin, Dmitri Kitaenko, Nicolai Malko, Sir Neville Marriner, Kurt Masur, Sakari Oramo, Jorma Panula, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Kurt Sanderling, Leif Segerstam, Maxim Shostakovich, Leonard Slatkin, Igor Stravinsky, Evgeny Svetlanov, Yuri Temirkanov, Osmo Vänskä, etc. Among Estonian conductors special mention should be made of Paavo Järvi and Olari Elts. In addition to Estonian soloists ERSO has performed with many world-famous guest soloists, such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Paul Badura-Skoda, Lazar Berman, Bella Davidovich, Peter Donohoe, Emil Gilels, Olli Mustonen, Sviatoslav Richter, Kolja Blacher, Sarah Chang, Ida Haendel, Gidon Kremer, Viktoria Mullova, David Oistrakh, Vladimir Spivakov, Juri Bashmet, David Geringas, Natalia Gutman, Arto Noras, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Patrick Gallois, Aurèle Nicolet, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Patricia Rozario, Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras, Peter Schreier, Håkan Hagegård, Sergei Leiferkus, Matti Salminen, etc.