The debate over the development of a new, much-needed concert hall in Riga has been ongoing, which for many in Latvia’s capital has become an old and frustrating issue.
With regional centres such as Liepaja’s shining on the Baltic region’s cultural map, with the city’s new magnificent Great Amber Concert Hall, Rezekne with its Gors Concert Hall, and Cesis with a population of 18,065 priding itself with the Cesis Concert Hall, Riga has been overtaken by superior concert venues that have been built throughout Latvia.
In the opinion of internationally acclaimed Latvian pianist Vestards Shimkus, everything in Gors (meaning “spirit” in the local Latgalian language) in Rezekne and Great Amber in Liepaja has been constructed close to perfection at the highest international level standards.
“In terms of quality, these halls are no worse than most of the great concert halls of the major European cities,” said Shimkus.
“At the present moment these two halls are also the only venues in Latvia where concert-goers can experience acoustical music the way it is meant to sound.”
Shimkus has himself been raising awareness for a new concert hall in Riga.
“There is no venue in Riga where acoustical music could sound the way it should. I have heard of the latest ideas how to solve this problem and I wholeheartedly support the idea of building a new hall,” said Shimkus.
Efforts have been ongoing to realise the building of a new concert. Only as recently as 2015 Latvia’s Minister of Culture, Dace Melbarde, proposed the construction of a new concert hall in Riga to a parliamentary committee in the Latvian Saeima.
Dace Vilsone, Deputy State Secretary for Cultural Policy at the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, informed The Baltic Times that the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia in their declaration have made a point that they will make a definite decision on how to proceed with the new concert hall proposal.
Previous attempts have also failed; the 2006 international competition for the Riga Concert Hall, which featured designs by five Latvian architects — who were pitted against five European firms — was won by the Latvian architectural studio of Silis, Zabers & Klava, who proposed a clustered structure, modest in scale, and with a dynamic skyline on a narrow plot of land in Riga, known as AB dam, on the left bank of the Daugava River, just opposite the medieval core of the city. Silis, Zabers & Klava’s winning design proposed a linear cluster of dark-coloured volumes arranged in a sculptural composition and capable of expansion.
This project did not eventuate due to the 2009 global financial crisis.
“The Ministry of Culture has prepared a report where we have made provisions for three potential development options for the concert hall project,” said Vilsone.
“The first proposal is to reconsider the concert hall proposal which was stopped. Which would be undertaken through investment from the state budget.”
The second proposal would be undertaking refurbishment of the Riga Congress Centre. In this case the city of Riga would be the responsible for undertaking the project.
Melbarde has been fierce in her rejection of undertaking renovation of Riga’s Congress Centre, a Soviet-era building, constructed in 1982.
Melbarde has in the past stated that it would be cheaper to construct an entirely new venue. She believes that it would be a multi-functional venue and used also for conferences and conventions.
Shimkus also vehemently disagrees with the idea of renovating the Congress Centre.
“A hall’s acoustics live in the hall’s architecture much more than in the materials that the hall’s interior is finished with,” said Shimkus.
“At the moment, there are absolutely no acoustics in the Congress Centre hall and nothing suggests they could suddenly appear there after extensive, costly renovation. I truly hope this idea will never be accepted because a lot of taxpayers’ money would be wasted on a project which would see no improved result.”
“Every year we feel that Riga needs a new concert hall,” said Maris Briezkalns, artistic director of the Riga Jazz Festival (Rigas Ritmi). “It’s difficult to play in the Riga Congress Centre because of the acoustics. You have to make special acoustics shields.”
The third possibility that could be pursued according to Vilsone would involve a private- public partnership.
“This would see the government accessing EU funds and allocating a certain amount from the budget which we could give to a private partnership, to the investment organisation,” said Vilsone.
“We are now doing the work with other ministries to find out which of the three options we could really develop. We will give the government the report, and one also hopes there will be a decision made on one of these possibilities. We plan to make a decision by the end of this year,” she added.
The Riga Concert Hall has constantly reignited the debate about the needs and desires of Latvian society in general.
“It seems even more difficult to understand why Riga is still stubbornly avoiding becoming a true European capital of culture with at least one outstanding acoustic concert hall,” said Shimkus.
It really doesn’t matter to Shimkus where such a new concert hall would be built (be it in the centre of Riga, or the degraded territories outside of the centre) “as long as it gets built somewhere at all!”
Dace Melbarde has, however, rejected the long-disputed idea of constructing a concert facility on Riga’s AB Jetty, due to “insufficient funding.”
The Riga City Architect’s Office has been discussing the Zukasala site for the location of a new concert hall. Zukasala is one of several islands in the Daugava River in the central part of the city of Riga, and is home to the Riga Radio and TV Tower, the tallest structure in the Baltic States.
Martins Vanags, Managing Director of the Skanste Development Agency, emphasises: “In the coming years, Skanste will see the construction of such public buildings as the Riga Conference and Concert Centre, as well as the development of modern infrastructure projects.”
The project which the international property developer Mercks plans hitherto will be supplemented by new and energy-efficient office and residential buildings and in the area between Pulkveza Brieza, Hanzas, Skanstes, and Sporta Streets a new business and residential quarter, New Hanza City, will be built.
“Definitely we are looking forward to making a decision and really developing one of the projects. Because that’s the opportunity that could be used for the nation,” said Vilsone.
Vilsone believes that cultural facilities facilitate music, musicians, and society’s development.
As to the branding of Latvia as a cultural Baltic powerhouse, “Latvia and musicians. That’s the brand,” said Vilsone.