RIGA - The State Choir Latvija is the best choir in the Baltics, according to General Manager Maris Oslejs. The singers have performed throughout Europe and as far away as Singapore, but from Aug. 22 to Sept. 11, they will be filling churches in Riga, Dubulti and Liepaja. A darkened church without music can feel like an empty theater. And any time Riga's Dome Cathedral plays its mighty organ or St. Peter's Church hosts a concert, which thanks to the country's tourist renaissance has been quite often lately, it's a mini-miracle. The festival should be a good treat.
The International Sacred Music Festival began in 1998. "We were always going abroad," says Oslejs. "We wanted to do something at home."
In past years, the festival has brought in the great American conductor, Kurt Masur ("We have a good relationship with him," says Oslejs) and Arvo Part, the Estonian composer who may be the greatest musical genius the region has ever produced.
This year, the festival will bring in the Uzbek-born Alexandre Knaifel for the world premiere of his "Chalice."
The State Choir Latvija was founded in 1942 far away from Latvia proper, right in the heart of the former Soviet Union, Moscow. A group of Latvian refugees put the choir together there and then came back to Riga to keep on performing.
The choir did manage to perform many of the great classical works throughout the irreligious Soviet era. "We had someone convince the authorities that many of these great works of sacred music had a cultural foundation as well," says Oslejs. That said, the choir did have to pay its dues performing a few old-time Soviet anthems.
On Sept. 11, the festival will conclude with a concert of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" at the Dome Cathedral in honor of the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Britten, a lifelong pacifist, wrote the piece, an anti-liturgical work set against a Latin text and the anti-war poet Wilfred Owen's work, in 1962 in honor of the reopening of the 14th-century Coventry Cathedral which had been severely bombed during World War II. The piece still resonates strongly 44 years later.
The playbill says that it will be "dedicated to the memory of terrorism victims," but Oslejs plays down the specific political overtones.
"The concert should be held in honor of all victims of war, which is not over. It still goes on in Lebanon and Iraq."
Religion may be biological. Something in our constitution may urge us to look beyond ourselves for a greater meaning to the universe. As such, sacred music, when it is performed well, has a way of playing on the deepest needs, or at least the nerve endings, of the most pronounced atheist.
If so, sacred music may very well be a nutritional requirement. State Choir Latvija is performing a good service for the religious and non-believer alike.
The 9th International Sacred Music Festival
Aug. 22 to Sept. 11
More info: www.choirlatvija.lv