How such a small country can produce so many world-class musicians remains a mystery. Although, if you are born in Latvia you are likely to be raised with lullabies, you grow up singing at celebrations and gatherings, you are likely to be a member of a choir and take part in the nationwide Song and Dance Celebration – a movement based on the choral and folk dance tradition which brings together thousands of people from all over the country – such an environment must be a breeding ground for excellency in music. Even the Latvian struggle for independence during the last years of the Soviet union is known as ‘the Singing Revolution’. Music, often combined with the most powerful poetry of the time, contributed to the resistance movement by carrying messages that had to be hidden between the lines through to the people.
Since the restoration of independence it is this field of contemporary classical music that has flourished most notably. Latvian choirs1 have built an international reputation by obtaining almost all the awards that a choir can get – ranging from the European Grand Prix to the main prize of the Choir Olympics.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Councertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, as well as the Bayerischer Rundfunk Orchestra are all currently led by Latvians.2 you can find a surprising variety on the Latvian music scene – Chamber music, medieval music, baroque ensembles. Having such talented musicians has forged an inspiring field for composers.3 There is also a lively pop music scene,4 folk and post-folk,5 jazz and blues musicians,6 but one of the most popular Latvian bands abroad might be Skyforgers that combines folk and heavy metal traditions.
Probably the first Latvian-born opera singer that opera lovers around the world got to know was Inese Galante (1954), but before long the best opera houses of the world, be it Metropolitan Opera in new york, La Scala in Milan, Vienna State Opera or others, would feature some of the great Latvian opera stars – mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča (1976), soprano Kristīne Opolais (1979), soprano Maija Kovaļevska (1979) and many more. All of them began their careers at the Latvian national Opera, which under the leadership of Andrejs Žagars (1958), an opera director himself, has become an important opera venue, staging works by Chaikovsky, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner as well as contemporary Latvian composers.
Krēmers & Kremerata Baltica
Gidons Krēmers (1947) is a Latvian violinist and conductor, internationally renowned for his exceptional interpretative skills. He has appeared on virtually every major concert stage with the most celebrated orchestras of Europe and America. In 1997 he gathered the most talented musicians of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, creating the chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica, which later became one of the most prominent international ensembles in Europe and beyond. The orchestra has played in more than 60 countries and 400 cities, and in the best concert halls around the world over the last 16 years, together with soloists and conductors such as Mischa Maisky, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Simon Rattle, Heinz Holliger and others.
Since the 1990’s, Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (1946) has been recognized as one of the major European contemporary composers. He has certainly influenced the younger generations of Latvian composers with his work. In his compositions – symphonic works, choral music, chamber music, piano concertos - Pēteris Vasks always contains a moral imperative. Cragged and disjointed clusters of sound and aleatory elements may represent the destruction and inevitability of pain, though a reference to the possibility of a better more ideal world is never absent. Music critics have described Vasks’ musical style as spiritual, powerfully evocative and richly expressive. In his music Vasks tells of Latvian history and landscape, and even poses questions about humankind.
Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov once said that conducting is a ‘shady business’ – it is not easy to explain what role in the whole wonder of music is played by a conductor. However, it is certain that Latvians are gifted at this shady business. Grammy-award winning Mariss Jansons (1943) is currently chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Andris nelsons (1978) has been appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony orchestra. Conductors specialized in choir music have also achieved success together with their choirs - Māris Sirmais created world class amateur choir “Kamēr...”, and also leads the internationally acclaimed professional choir “Latvija”. Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš together with the 24 singer chamber choir “Latvian Radio Choir” are considered one of the leading professional chamber choirs in Europe. They all eagerly perform contemporary works by Latvian composers, and have the ability to perform the most complicated scores written in our times. If you are Latvian, you most likely know the main conductors, have your favourite and least favourite ones.
Song and Dance Celebration
The Latvian nationwide Song and Dance Celebration is an incredible phenomenon, recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. With the tradition dating back to 1873, it is a grass-roots movement that literally pervades all of Latvian society, engaging huge numbers of people from all walks of life. Imagine 12 000 singers come on one stage to sing a capella with such nuance, technical skill, tonal colour and style that you would expect from a professional ensemble. Or imagine corps de ballet of 15 000 dancers that dance forming patterns which can only be appreciated from above based upon ancient Latvian designs. Behind the scenes there are four years of a thorough preparation process, a general tradition of singing and dancing, a respect and interest in the roots of Latvian culture.
The Dainas (Latvian Folk Songs) are little quatrains of ancient Latvian wisdom captured in song. Created well over a thousand years ago, Dainas were part of celebrations, daily work, reflections on life preserved in oral form. There are more than 1.2 million Dainas, with references to them in all forms and layers of culture, from theatre plays to everyday conversations. The collection of Dainas under the name “The Cabinet of Dainas” is inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.