Tinsel without pretense – Riga’s Winterfest

  • 2012-11-14
  • By Jonathan Brown

TUNED IN: This year’s festival is a celebration of the winter season.

RIGA - They formed in 1975 after a pickup soccer game at the Budapest Academy of Music. The years between tell a tale of increasing accolades, successes, and achievements. In 2003 they won a Grammy. More recently The New York Times described their recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets as “the most richly expressive modern account of this titanic cycle.” Unrivaled, the Takacs String Quartet make up only one of eight concerts in this year’s Winterfest.
Arriving from Paris, the Takacs won’t bring their standard repertoire to Riga. They’ve won acclaim from their recordings of Beethoven and Bartok’s cycles, but this December they’re performing Dvorak’s American Quartet, Benjamin Britten’s Quartet No. 3, and Schubert’s Rosamunde. If the Takacs’ comfort zone is not infinite, this is an opportunity to hear them approach its boundary.

Now in its 14th year, Winterfest is gaining momentum. Since its inception the festival has attracted some of the most prestigious names in the field including, Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, pianist Martha Argerich, and the Tokyo String Quartet. This year is no different. After the Takacs, the greatest attention getter this year is Joshua Bell. Perhaps you’ve heard of the violin Wunderkind who busked incognito in Washington’s Metro Station? He performed to 1,000 passers by, earning only $32. This was mid-tour while he was performing sold out concerts to audiences in D.C and Boston paying as much as $100 per ticket. The experiment questions how we value music in relation to space. When Bell performs Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestra dell Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, we hope for more beauty than experimentation.

It’s possible that European audiences are less susceptible to celebrity hype than audiences in the United States - this is certainly true of classical music. Bell can be found precariously tiptoeing the line between celebrity and musician; on which side he falls seems to vary from concert to concert. One strong indication of his musicianship, among others, is his role of music director of St. Martin’s Academy in the Fields. He’s won a Grammy, Mercury, and a Gramophone. His performance will certainly be unique and powerful, but at a time of unbridled celebrity, will Bell’s violin speak for itself?
As pacifying and cathartic as Arvo Part’s music is, it seems to suffocate the voice of other Estonian composers - Toivo Tulev for instance. The Latvian Radio Choir has been performing Part’s music in North America. For their Winterfest program, however, they’ll bring Tulev. Their concert includes three other lesser known composers; two Swedes at the height of their careers, Andres Hillborg and Sven-David Sandstrom, and the wild card, Gaspar Sanz, a Spanish composer and guitarist who lived until 1710.

St. John’s Church hosts Late Night Prayer, an encyclopedic concert of choral music. Rarely would you find J.S. Bach and John Cage on the same ticket; if anything these composers are poised at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cage, a 20th century American composer is credited with removing the remnants of the same musical tradition Bach pioneered. How these two composers cooperate will be the fulcrum of the evening. The biggest test, however, will be the Latvian Radio Choir’s handling of Ligeti’s contribution to the program. The Hungarian has been known to compose such that each musician in an ensemble reads from a unique score. Somehow, these parts combine to form something static, moving, and mesmerizing. There is no doubt that however disparate the pieces, their renditions will be expert.

The Takacs, Joshua Bell, and the Latvian Radio Choir are highlights, but Winterfest has much more recommended itself. Gregory Smirnov will ring in a January Christmas with the Male Orthodox Choir. Regulars at Winterfest, their performance promises much. Ute Lemper’s program, Last Tango in Berlin could be the festival’s wild card. She’s universally acclaimed as Germany’s Cabaret Prima Donna. I Solisti Veneti with Claudio Scimone will bring Grammy award winning expertise and the best of Italian Chamber Music to The Latvian National Opera.

If the festival’s program seems a little scattered, it ought to. Winterfest is simultaneously a celebration of Christmas, New Year, the Orthodox Christmas in January, and the anniversary of the agency that organizes it, the Herman Braun Foundation. This is a refreshing approach to programming. Organizations that bring classical music to the public sometimes promise spiritual revelation or intellectual workouts. In the case of Winterfest, the thematic glue of the festival is simple - celebration, celebration of the season and great music.

For more information about Riga’s Winterfest visit www.hbf.lv