RIGA - This fall, I was lucky enough to experience a taste of Latvian-Jewish culture, and it was unique, to say the least! The Jewish community in Riga is one of the most fascinating and misunderstood minority communities in Latvia.
Recently, the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Riga hosted a musical extravaganza "Shana Tova!" which featured a variety of Jewish musicians from a smorgasbord of genres. The concert took place in the Jewish Community Center's Concert Hall, on Skolas Street, truly a hidden architectural masterpiece.
The visual splendor of the venue was the first of many sensory delights at the "Shana Tova" concert. The Grand Hall was a wonderful and unexpected surprise, with its embossed ceiling, ornate balconies and spectacular chandelier. The Star of David was prominently featured in the decorative scheme, front and centre above the stage, surrounded by golden swirls and flowers. The Star of David clearly distinguishes this Jewish Hall from other similar theatrical performance venues in Riga, including the Latvian National Theatre and the National Opera. This Hall is truly revelatory of the rich cultural history of Jews in Riga. I never would have expected the grandeur, from the relatively nondescript exterior of the building.
The mysterious Riga Synagogue cantor Valdis Sulmans was the star performer of the evening. With his haunting baritone voice, the cantor impressed the audience, singing a number of traditional Hebrew religious pieces, focusing on a repertoire typically sung in liturgies in the Synagogue. His voice resounded with the echoes of an ancient past, steeped deeply in traditions. Closing my eyes, I could imagine I was in Jerusalem, basking in the warm glow of candle light. Few are blessed with a voice as powerful, and yet, as delicate, as Sulmans'. Clearly, the cantor loves to sing and to perform for his audiences 's he has a true stage presence.
Following his solo, Ccntor Valdis Sulmans was joined onstage by an octet of male singers from "Balsis," one of Latvia's most esteemed and beloved mixed choirs. Dressed in black two piece suits, and bow ties, they contrasted visually with cantor Sulmans, in his traditional Hebrew black hat and fringed shawl. The musical selection was beautiful - a medley of Hebrew traditional chants, led by the cantor, and backed up by the choir. This unique meeting of musicians from two separate traditions was indeed a treat for the ears. It was a completely different and probably challenging repertoire for Balsis, worlds away from the Latvian folk songs they performed this past summer, at the Latvian Song Festival.
Another highlight of the "Shana Tova" concert was the Riga Klezmer Band, composed of Jurijs Svakins (violin), Eduardo Raubisko (clarinet), and Jurijs Kaspers (piano). The Klezmer band was my favorite performance of the evening, with its lively and upbeat melodies. Klezmer is a genre of music typically performed at Jewish weddings and celebrations, and klezmer songs are typically sung in Yiddish. The genre is famous for its amazing emotional expression: the music of a good klezmer band is said to mimic that of a human being laughing, or crying. The genre was widely popularized by the well known "Fiddler on the Roof." Riga's Klezmer Band was a wonderful introduction to the genre for me, and I will never again pass up an opportunity to see a Klezmer performance.
While the "Shana Tova" concert was a one-time experience, its star performers perform regularly in Riga, and there are many opportunities to see them in action. Riga's Klezmer band performs several times a year in Latvia. Balsis will perform next on Nov.17 at Arena Riga. Cantor Valdis Sulmans can be seen regularly chanting at Riga's Synagogue. The Shamir Jewish Cultural Center's website contains up to the minute information on upcoming Jewish cultural events in Riga.