Latvia is a country steeped in a wonderful choral tradition
As I write this I’m getting ready for a trip to Riga – my first in over two years – for meetings and to catch up with old friends and colleagues. Over the last decade I’ve been a regular visitor to this bustling, compact, yet grand city on the edge of the Baltic, exploring its vibrant and exciting cultural life, especially its music. Of particular interest to me, naturally, is its contemporary music which is thriving – there is more to Latvia than Pēteris Vasks, master though he is – thanks to figures like Pēteris Plakidis, Uģis Prauliņš, Andris Dzenitis, Ēriks Ešenvalds and Rihards Dubra that are still too little known in Western Europe.
And then there is singing. In the UK we are justly proud of our choral tradition (though some choirs seem to think you only have to be British to be good) but are rather insular when it comes to investigating the equally long-lived and distinguished choral cultures of others. And singing is what Latvians do. I don’t know what percentage of the population is in a choir but it must be pretty high; it’s certainly taken very seriously and every Latvian I know can sing, and does. The country has a huge repertory of folk songs, many of which everybody knows. (Encore Pūt vējiņi in a concert and you will hear audible sighs of recognition and pleasure from the audience.) Recognised by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’, the five-yearly song festivals see thousands of performers sing to audiences numbered in the hundreds of thousands in a specially-built amphitheatre. During Jāņi, the summer solstice celebrations, Latvians head for the countryside, jump over bonfires, drink, and…sing – a lot!
In a country of 2.2 million people there are two full-time professional chamber choirs, the State Choir ‘Latvija’ and the Latvian Radio Choir. (The UK, by the way, has only one – the BBC Singers.) The Riga Dom Cathedral Boys Choir (which has men in it too!) is one of the great all-male choirs of the world. The youth choir Kamer… regularly give performances of astonishing virtuosity and dedication. But it’s not just the ubiquity of singing and the skill of its practitioners that’s impressive, it’s the sheer sound of Latvian choirs that is so remarkable and so different from our own: there is a particular purity and clarity (much lighter-voiced tenors, for example) but also a plangency, a richness and intensity that is totally compelling. Conductor Māris Sirmais describes it as combining the best of the Germanic and Russian traditions (both occupiers of Latvia…), but is it fanciful to suggest that the pain of centuries of oppression and the struggle to maintain some kind of national identity and dignity is also what gives the sound of Latvian choirs a particular emotional authenticity and quiet strength? (In 2010 the State Choir were rehearsing my piece A ship with unfurled sails, a setting of words by the Estonian Doris Kareva; when I explained that the poem was written in Soviet times and so the long-awaited ship represented independence, the whole atmosphere of the performance changed because, of course, they understood. It was unbearably moving.)
A few summers ago I was walking through Dom Square during the Riga Festival and on a street corner I saw a group of lads in their late teens doing what teenagers the world over do – smoking, drinking and messing about. They were all in national costume – they’d obviously just been performing – and were quite unselfconscious about standing around wearing what many young people would find embarrassingly folkish and, well, just plain naff. Sights like this, or that of a group of office boys attending the opera after work whereas in London they’d be getting drunk in a City wine bar, are telling instances of the way that singing is at the heart of everyday life in Latvia in a way that we should only envy. It must be hoped that as Latvia continues its re-integration into the Europe to which it has always really belonged singing will remain one of its central and defining preoccupations for its choirs are among the great glories of the world.
I can’t wait to board that plane…