Latvian State Choir launches ambitious project for nation’s centenary

  • 2015-12-16
  • Christopher Walsh

RIGA - The Latvian State Choir presented the first of five celebratory concerts on Friday, Dec. 11, premiering new works from 14 living Latvian composers. The concerts are part of a significant commissioning project to celebrate Latvia’s centenary in 2018. 70 new works in total will be performed, and a panel of judges will determine the top 20 to be performed in a special concert in 2018.

Ziedona Hall in the Latvian National Library was the site of the first concert; it is unclear at this point whether it will host the remaining four shows. The recently constructed concert hall was an appropriate setting for the new works as the clear acoustics allowed the complex harmonies and extended compositional techniques to speak cleanly.

Extended techniques were the theme of the evening as several of the new pieces featured unorthodox effects ranging from rain sticks and chimes to overtone singing and traditional Latvian folk singing (a belt-like technique native to the region of Latgale). Laura Jekabsone, well known in Latvian musical circles as leader of the women’s a cappella group Latvian Voices, offered the most cohesive and skilled piece employing extended techniques; her work was compelling and made ample use of the chorus’ noteworthy power.

One of the most prominent composers on the program, Pauls Dambis, attempted to depict the Latvian character in a piece that unsuccessfully merged spoken effects with stale choral writing. Similarly disappointing were works by Emils Rusovs and Gundega Smite. The use of extended techniques is in vogue at the moment in Latvia, with composers like Eriks Esenvalds and Santa Ratniece leading the way with fresh ideas and innovative pieces. However, the novelty is beginning to wear off as pieces lack structural integrity and sensible harmonic progressions in favor of piecemeal ideas and flashy tricks.

The standout piece of the night was Ansis Sauka’s “Ar zvaigznu kluso gaismu,” a straightforward and beautiful setting of the words of influential  Latvian poet Ojars Vacietis. Sauka is the longtime vocal pedagogue for the State Choir, and his intimate knowledge of the choir’s capabilities was obvious as he wrote lush harmonies that were perfectly voiced for the ensemble.

Other highlights came from two composers born in the 1970s: Andris Kontauts and Andris Dzenitis. Dzenitis’ work sustained powerful energy throughout a broad middle section; few choirs in the world can match the State Choir Latvija’s powerful, exciting tone, and the best works of the evening were those that took advantage of the incredible instrument at their disposal. Kontauts’ work featured an extended solo from mezzo-soprano Lauma Malnace, who delivered the part with a beautiful timbre and emotional honesty.

As always, the choir was guided through every nuance by Maris Sirmais. Sirmais should be commended for stewarding this significant project; in recent years he has led similar commissioning efforts for the State Choir and the renowned Youth Choir Kamer…, an ensemble that he founded and conducted until 2012. His efforts to champion the works of Latvian composers at home and abroad have launched several international careers. To find 70 composers to write new works would be a tall order in countries several times larger than Latvia, and it should be noted that each piece on the program had some degree of merit. There is no scraping the bottom of the barrel for this endeavor.

The choir itself demonstrated throughout the evening why it is considered one of the best choruses in the world. Each chord is well balanced and perfectly tuned; a composer couldn’t ask for a more faithful rendition of their work. Riga’s citizens should look forward to the next concerts in this project as they will serve as an interesting barometer for the compositional atmosphere in Latvia over the next three years.