The Cost of Tchaikovsky - Identity and the Latvian National Opera

  • 2012-12-04
  • By Jonathan Brown

RIGA - Perusing this season's booklet or recalling visits to the opera, perhaps the name Tchaikovsky inexplicably springs to mind? If the Russian composer is inseparable from your recollection of Latvia's National Opera then you've uncovered a puzzling trend in the LNO's programming.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is revered for his six symphonies as well as having championed ballet music. He also happens to have composed ten operas - a rarely paralleled feat. His looming over the Western Classical canon aside, the LNO and its ballet pay disproportional tribute in their 2012/13 season. This year, the Opera offers two Tchaikovsky productions, the Ballet four. In place of one of these productions we may have expected to see Igor Stravinsky’s monumental ballet, the Rite of Spring. Celebrating its centenary in May, the Rite revolutionized music and dance in the twentieth century. With the entire European music tradition to nominate, this striking imbalance seems strange.

The Baltic’s musical traditions are robust; they clamor to define seminal moments in the three states' history. These traditions and this music play a measurable role forming the region's identity, too. As a consequence, the LNO’s overemphasis of Tchaikovsky comes at a cost to Latvia's musical integrity and perhaps its identity. One such cost will be exposed by the Goethe Institute this December. Their project, Where from? Where to? - Myths, Nations and Identities, shows not that the LNO should program less Tchaikovsky - it illuminates the enormous musical wealth to be found in Latvia.

The project asks young Eastern Europe composers to "explore historic and current myths that serve the construction of identity and meaning." The Institute shortlisted thirty-four composers to respond to this prompt, whereupon eight were shortlisted. Three of these happened to be from Latvia - two had studied in Lithuania. What's more, the most daring, reputable, and respected of contemporary music ensembles in Europe, the Ensemble Modern, will premiere these scores under Peter Eotvos' baton in Munich on Dec.11 - 12. They'll play in Riga next October. This is tremendous recognition for new music of the Baltic States.

Already, one myth comes to light - the idea that national identity is important for contemporary composers at all. In interviews with The Baltic Times, neither Kristaps Petersons nor Andris Dzenitis, two shortlisted Latvian composers, dwelled on these parameters. "I never consider nationality in my music," assures Andris Dzenitis. "I can still hear my former teacher Peteris Vasks shouting at me, asking why I’m not a patriot." Dzenitis’ contribution to Where from? Where to?, Latvian Cookbook, is (as the title suggests) about Latvian cuisine. Each movement references a national recipe. Dzenitis is by all counts quite fortunate - the LNO opened its season 2012/13 with the premiere of his first full scale opera Dauka. This kind of attention for a young Latvian composer however, is a welcome anomaly.

Petersons reiterated these sentiments: "I'm not making my music to be Latvian. If it sounds so, then I’m not aware." That said his submission to the Institute's project resonates neatly with Latvia's recent economic climate. It's titled Money. In two movements, the first is divided into two distinct sections; Economic Boom and Economic Crisis. The second movement Solution "has nothing to do with money." Money, is a concise, profound, and sympathetic response to the impact of the economic crisis in Latvia, which according to Petersons, "forced Latvians to 'tighten their belts,' work harder, to emigrate (and work harder), or commit suicide." Petersons' music consistently deals with unearthing myths, believing in the importance and catharsis of uncovering the weak links in societies. Petersons, too, feels that "no, absolutely not," Latvian musical institutions don't do enough to foster young talent. "It's almost impossible for Latvians to 'break into' the international market."

The two questions emerge. The first, and less pressing, is tied to the second. It asks if we're hearing too much Tchaikovsky. Surely the LNO, Ballet, and their audience would be better served with a broader range of music? The second and more important of the two is whether Latvia is sufficiently hearing, promoting or encouraging new classical music. Even if he can still hear the voice of his teacher, Vasks, Dzenitis and his peers' are in danger of losing theirs - a troubling thought considering how articulate, evocative, and poignant those voices are. These are voices deserving of the LNO and its audience's attention, with Tchaikovsky in moderation.

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