Māris Briežkalns Quintet translates Rothko paintings into music

Celebrated painter Mark Rothko (born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, modern-day Daugavpils, Latvia) painted some of the most memorable and identifiable canvases of the 20th century. With just a few colors and basic shapes, his paintings seem simplistic at first, but reveal a lush and intimate world that is both striking and affecting.

Using the paintings as inspiration, the Māris Briežkalns Quintet, a jazz ensemble from Latvia, has endeavored to translate these paintings into music, with the help of a number of distinguished Latvian composers. The result is the 2016 album Rothko in Jazz, a collection of ten jazz compositions inspired by the works of Rothko.

The Māris Briežkalns Quintet, made up of Māris Briežkalns on drums, Viktors Ritovs on keyboards, Gints Pabērzs on saxophone, Edvīns Ozols on double bass, and Raimonds Macats playing the cello and harmonica, has been performing for more than 10 years. The group describe their sound as having pop-jazz and Latin-jazz accents, and has played around the world and released multiple acclaimed albums.

The group enlisted the help of a wide range of Latvian composers (from established composers like Pēteris Vasks and Raimonds Pauls to younger talents such as Jēkabs Jančevskis) to assist with the project – each composer was given the assignment of taking one Rothko painting and creating a composition based on how the painting inspired the composer.

According to the CD notes, the paintings selected for this project are all from Rothko’s last artistic period, abstract expressionism, and were painted in the period between 1945 and 1968. Though most of the artworks produced during this time were of Rothko’s signature ‘multiform’ style, some of the works still had additional abstract images in them, for example the painting CR#248 (many of his works were untitled, and are identified by number in the booklet) painted in 1945. This painting served as the inspiration for Latvian American composer Lolita Ritmanis’ work ‘Against the Current’. The easy going, flowing work is woven together by Pabērzs’ saxophone, making for a dreamy opening for this collection.

One might not immediately think that composer Pēteris Vasks’ somber, weighty music would translate to a jazz format, however, his work ‘Autumnal’ (painting CR#513, 1954) effectively captures the beauty of nature that one can interpret from the green and the orange in the painting. Being Vasks, the work is a slow, melancholy stroll, accentuated by the deliberate, fateful tones of Ritovs’ piano playing.

Compoer Jēkabs Jančevskis, a rising star in Latvian composition, provides the engaging work ‘Red-and-White’ (1285.69, 1968), which features the slow wail of Macats’ cello, supplemented by Briežkalns’ steady rhythm.

As Rothko grew older, his paintings grew bleaker, such as CR#814 painted in 1969, which inspired Georgs Pelēcis’ work ‘Black and Gray’ (perhaps appropriate, given the composer’s last name, which can be translated as ‘greyblack’). Driven by Briežkalns’ drums and Ozols’ double bass), this wistful work is slightly sentimental and slightly morose, and is an engrossing listen.

The CD comes in a hardback book, with a reproduction of each of the paintings used for inspiration, as well as an image of the first few bars of the sheet music. Still, it would have been interesting to have some comments from the composers themselves about how the paintings inspired them, but perhaps all that can be determined from just listening to the music.

The group has been performing these works worldwide, and will have a concert at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City on May 2, 2018.

Rothko in Jazz collects ten unique musical portraits, presenting the colors and emotions of Rothko’s paintings in music. Though all are by different composers, they form a cohesive whole, a colorful spectrum created from the many individual aspects of Rothko’s works. The Māris Briežkalns Quintet, with their jazz arrangements of the works of an all-star array of Latvian composers, has, in their performances, successfully captured the essence of many of the paintings of Rothko.

For further information, please visit the Māris Briežkalns Quintet Facebook page.

 

Rothko in Jazz

Māris Briežkalns Quintet

Mūsdienu mūzikas centrs, MMCCD017, 2016

Track listing:

  1. Against the Current – Lolita Ritmanis
  2. Love’s Theme – Ēriks Ešenvalds
  3. Memories Landscape – Rihards Dubra
  4. Yellow-and-Red – Artūrs Maskats
  5. Autumnal – Rudenīgi
  6. Red-and-White – Jēkabas Jančevskis
  7. Waltz – Vilnis Šmidbergs
  8. Two in Three – Jēkabs Nīmanis
  9. Black and Gray – Georgs Pelēcis
  10. Swing of Dvinsk – Raimonds Pauls
  11. Rasa

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Folklore group Trejasmens release album about Ropaži area

The district of Ropaži, found in the Vidzeme area of Latvia, stretches from the Mazā Jugla River near Rīga to the Gauja River near Inčukalns. The area has been inhabited since as early as 4500 B.C., and the ancestors of the Semigallians lived there starting from the 1st century A.D. The region has a long and colorful history (the first mention of it in historical documents was in 1205), and throughout the millennia, many songs and stories about the region have been sung and told.

Recognizing the wealth of folklore material to be found in this area, the Latvian folklore group Trejasmens (along with many guests) released an album entitled No Ropažnieku dzīves, a two CD set – one CD is songs, the second contains stories, all from the Ropaži area.

Trejasmens, who have been performing since 2001, are made up of Andrejs Planders, Viesturs Āboltiņš, Pēteris Lukašēvičs, Jānis Siliņš, Juris Bariss, Uģis Urtāns, Līga Slišāne, Baiba Ērgle, and Dārta Apsīte. On the album they are joined by a multitude of musicians and storytellers, including members of the Zaķumuiža folklore group Oglīte, the Ropažu men’s ensemble Karma, members of the folklore groups Vilkači and Skandinieki, among many others. All have joined together to present an exhaustive musical and verbal presentation of the Ropaži district.

The group performs traditional arrangements of these songs, and the songs, usually fairly brief, are punctuated with brief instrumental bursts, making for an energetic tour through the musical history of Ropaži. There is a broad variety of songs, from songs about going to war – “Lai aug puri, lai aug meži”, to midsummer songs like “Ņem, Jānīti, sirmu zirgu, ligo, ligo”, to supernatural topics like werewolves and witches in “Vilkač Janka”, where one learns that Jānītis gave himself away as a werewolf as he always went for the bowl of meat first.

Many of the songs are also quite humorous, such as the song “Vīzdegune”, where the narrator brashly tells a conceited girl that treats him shabbily that he will find one that was raised better. Also, noting that the area also had many inhabitants from the Liv culture, there is the song “KORB”, dedicated to the Vidzeme Liv people.

The second CD of stories also contains a variety of tales, both historical and mythological. Some are amusing, such as ‘Kā desas līkums noderēja revolvera vietā’ – a story of a traveler who, when threatened by robbers, manages to convince the bandits that a sausage is a revolver. The story does not end there, as the robbers stop the traveler a second time, and, thinking that he just has a sausage again, fatally discover that he really has a revolver this time. There are more tales of werewolves, such as ‘Saimniece Vilkate’, and, as a note to the story indicates, the inhabitants truly believed that they existed, as a local minister Godelmans even wrote in 1587 that the werewolves had been living in the area for a long time.

As with many other releases from the Lauska record label, the excellent performances are supplemented by excellent packaging. The two CDs come in a richly illustrated hardback book, with more than 70 pages of history, cultural notes, song lyrics, drawings and pictures. There is a brief, but fascinating history of the Liv people in the area, though they were almost fully assimilated in the mid-19th century, some families still remained and the Liv language was still spoken even in the 20th century. However, besides a brief introduction and some song explanations in English, the rest of the text is only in Latvian – which is understandable, given the large volume of information contained in the booklet.

The Ropaži region has a wealth of songs, stories, and folklore, and Trejasmens’ album No Ropažnieku dzīves brings much of this wealth to life through songs and stories. Through vivid performances and storytelling, this two CD set is a comprehensive and thorough presentation of the Ropaži region’s history and culture. Supplemented by some of the most comprehensive liner notes in any recent release, the album is at once entertaining and a valuable historical record.

For further information please visit the Lauska record label website.

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra performs Vasks’ Flute Concerto, Symphony

2016 saw Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ 70th birthday. The German record label Wergo, a subsidiary of Schott Music (the publishers of Vasks’ music) took this opportunity to release a number of CDs of Vasks works, both symphonic and chamber music works. In collaboration with the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and conductor Atvars Lakstīgala, one of the records released included two of Vasks’ major symphonic works – his Concerto for Flute and Orchestra and Symphony No. 3 for Large Orchestra.

Lakstīgala and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to Vasks’ music, having actively performed and recorded his works, including his Symphony No. 2 on the Kurland Sounds disc, as well as his works ‘Sala’, ‘Musica Appassionata’, and ‘Credo’ also for a Wergo CD. Vasks himself is from the Kurzeme region of Latvia, and perhaps it is appropriate that an orchestra from this same region performs these works.

Vasks’ Flute Concerto is a demanding work, so it should be no surprise that one of Latvia’s premiere flutists – Dita Krenberga – plays the instrument on this recording. Much of Vasks’ music is ominous and full of foreboding, and the first movement ‘Cantabile 1’ of the work is a prime example. Krenberga’s flute and the orchestra begin quietly, as if unsure of which path to take, as they establish a melodic direction, which then gains in strength. Still, there is much trepidation in the flute, which, over the course of this movement, turns calmer, but still sorrowful.

The second movement ‘Quasi una burlesca’ is a jarring contrast to the first movement, with its sharp horn attacks and percussion at the beginning, signaling a dramatic return in tension, which also appears in the flute melody, which is now flittering and perhaps even fearful. Krenberga is given little respite in this movement, however, she maintains the necessary intensity and activity until the very end. The ‘burlesque’ of the title is presented through what is like a warped mirror, as it is at once frightful and containing dark humor. The middle section is where Krenberga shines, as it is an extended flute solo, and Krenberga’s performance is compelling and haunting, with its dramatic and melodic performance. The Concerto concludes with ‘Cantabile 2’, which is, like the first movement, more peaceful, but still maintains the overall tension of the work until the final notes.

Themes of nature, as well as Latvian identity often appear in Vasks’ works, and Symphony No. 3 is no exception. According to Vasks, while composing this monumental work (at nearly 40 minutes, it is one of his longest symphonic works), he pondered themes like ‘loss and the strength to move forward’ and ‘the endless battle between darkness and light’, and these weighty topics manifest themselves in many ways throughout the work. With six movements, the work takes the listener on an extensive and emotional journey, both somber and hopeful.

The pulsating first movement, with a kind of heartbeat provided by the percussion is then followed by the more anxious second movement, with its crashing snare drums and rising tension in the strings, compounded by further thundering percussion. The stormy fourth movement, with the horns and strings alternating alarming sounds, could be interpreted as a final warning to humanity. The sweeping sixth and final movement provides a small glimmer of hope, and also features one of Vasks’ trademarks – instruments replicating the sounds of birds, as if perhaps to suggest a new day may be dawning.

The Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Atvars Lakstīgala, once again show not only their talent and skill, but also their innate understanding and appreciation for Vasks’ music. Dramatic and emotional, as well as mysterious and foreboding, the Orchestra reveals the many complex and dense layers of his works. Along with flutist Dita Krenberga, the musicians provide a definitive performance of Pēteris Vasks’ Concerto for Flute. And, in a towering performance, Lakstīgala inspires a monumental performance of the composer’s Symphony No. 3. This CD is yet another exceptional release of Vasks’ music from the Wergo label, provided by exceptional Latvian musicians.

For further information, please visit the Wergo website and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra website.

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.