State Choir Latvija reveals richness and depth of Vasks’ sacred choir works

The choir music of Pēteris Vasks, particularly his sacred choir works, have long been an integral thread in the fabric of Latvian academic music. Not just in Latvia, but all over the world, his expressive and weighty works have been recognized and appreciated for their distinctive sound and emotional depth. At times discordant and harsh, other times gentle and hopeful, his music affects all those who hear it.

It is appropriate then, that, for the Latvian centenary in 2018, the Latvian national recording label Skani brought together the leading musicians in Latvia to record an album of Pēteris Vasks’ choir music. The State Choir Latvija, along with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and the Riga Professional Symphonic Band, all conducted by Māris Sirmais, released the album Lūgšana (Prayer) in 2018. The album collects four of Vasks’ vocal symphonic works, all with a spiritual nature, and, in the hands of such a talented group of performers, confirms again Vasks’ stature as a leading composer internationally.

The album includes both recently composed works, as well as earlier compositions, such as ‘Lūgšana mātei’ (Prayer for a Mother), based on a poem by Imants Ziedonis, which was composed in 1978. As it was composed during the Soviet occupation, sacred elements were forbidden in music, but Ziedonis’ text (sung by soprano Laura Teivāne), is still full of spirituality, with its repeated calls for “miers” (peace). Vasks’ earliest works are often harsh and discordant, and ‘Lūgšana mātei’ is no exception, with jarring and sudden percussion and bursts of sound and brief moments of choir singing. This is perhaps an unexpected musical approach for a prayer, but perhaps also considering that this was written during the Soviet occupation, messages of spirituality (or of discontent) had to be presented in, at best, oblique ways. From its quiet, mournful introduction, to Teivāne’s rich and resonant solo performance, this ode to mothers is memorable and moving.

A more recent work is ‘Laudate Dominum’ from 2016. The Latin text – Vasks only uses the words ‘Laudate Dominum. Alelulia.’ in the composition – provides the foundation for this powerful and expansive work. The gradually swelling orchestral introduction suddenly stops for the quiet entrance of the choir, providing a brief, almost Baroque interlude between the orchestral sections. Though filled with dramatic tension, the work closes on a hopeful, joyful note.

The centerpiece of this collection is the five moment ‘Mesa’ (or ‘Mass’) from 2005. The opening ‘Kyrie’ section is always in motion, with the choir melodies rising and falling with the text about begging for mercy from the Lord. The majestic ‘Gloria’ and the celebratory ‘Sanctus’ follow. The quieter and more tender ‘Agnus Dei’ concludes the work, and the delicate strings, along with the nuanced choir singing, completes this spiritual musical journey.

The album concludes with the brief but resplendent ‘Lūgšana Latvijai’ (Prayer for Latvia). As befitting its ceremonial nature, the brass instruments of the symphonic band Rīga give it a rich texture, and the text by poet Velta Toma, though laconic, offers an expansive prayer for Latvia and Latvians throughout the world in just a few words. It comes to a jubilant conclusion, with the choir Latvija, conducted by Sirmais, bringing the necessary gravity and vocal richness to make for a moving performance.

As with many of the Skani releases, the CD packaging includes an extensive interview with composer Vasks where he shares many details of the composition process and the history behind some of these works. The booklet text is in both English and Latvian.

As a present for Latvia on its 100th birthday, Lūgšana will have few equals. The immense compositional talent of Pēteris Vasks in the hands of exceptional musicians like the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, the symphonic band Rīga, the State Choir Latvija, all conducted by preeminent conductor Māris Sirmais, provides for a memorable combination. The richness and depth of Vasks’ works are vividly presented in this collection of symphonic choral works.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Pēteris Vasks – Lūgšana

Latvian State Choir Latvija, conductor Māris Sirmais

LMIC/SKANI 070, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Lūgšana mātei
  2. Laudate Dominum

Missa

  • I. Kyrie
  • II. Gloria
  • III. Sanctus
  • IV. Benedictus
  • V. Agnus Dei
  • Lūgšana Latvijai

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.

Study underway looking into language skills, use by children of Latvian nationals living abroad

Language skills and usage play a central role in the diaspora to maintain ties with Latvia and strengthen Latvian identity. Studies to date have shown that living abroad, especially in famiies of mixed ethnic origin, children of Latvian nationals assimilate very quickly. With your help researchers hope to establish the attitude of parents to the Latvian language and its use in the family and why and how Latvian language is maintained and strengthened among children.

Language skills and usage play a central role in the diaspora to maintain ties with Latvia and strengthen Latvian identity. Studies to date have shown that living abroad, especially in famiies of mixed ethnic origin, children of Latvian nationals assimilate very quickly.

For this reason one of the central aims of diaspora policy is the Latvian language education of children in the diaspora: support for Latvian language learning, and the maintenance of existing Latvian language skills in the diaspora. To achieve this aim, for a number of years now the Latvian Language Agency has provided varied support, including financial support to weekend diaspora language schools, distance education opportunities, as well as varied teaching and methodological materials. Yet the question remains:

  • how relevant and necessary is it for parents in the diaspora?
  • Do the resources developed and activities supported serve the needs of parents and children or could support possibly be needed elsewhere?

A team of migration researchers at the University of Latvia, with funding from the Ministry of Education and Science, are seeking answers to these questions in a new study. The aim of the research is to establish the attitude of parents to the Latvian language and its use in the family and why and how Latvian language is maintained and strengthened among children. The study will help to understand the situation in families in the Latvian diaspora and plan support mechanisms more effectively so that they meet the needs and wishes of parents.

At the completion of the study, research results will be published in an aggregated form (you will remain anonymous) on the website migracija.lv.

The study is being conducted until 12th October, and you can take part by clicking here. The survey may be filled out in English, Latvian or Russian.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD candidate, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, an author and translator into English of various books on industrial history in Latvia.

Namejs Kalniņš creates rich palette of mystical sounds on the kokle

The kokle, a Latvian stringed instrument, has long been a symbol of Latvian culture and history. Though perhaps a comparatively simple instrument, its distinct sound is irrevocably associated with Latvian folklore, and the instrument is even a part of Latvian mythology. Just one example of the supernatural nature of the kokle can be found in Jānis Rainis’ play Spēlēju, dancoju – musician Tots brings his kokle along when he travels to the land of the dead to rescue Lelde, who had been attacked by evil spirits.

Though some might consider the instrument archaic, or perhaps quaint, interest in kokle performance remains high throughout Latvia, and many young musicians are drawn to the instrument both for its sound, as well as its Latvian symbolism. One such musician is Namejs Kalniņš, a young kokle player who, at the age of 15, released his first album – Laika gaitā – in 2018.

Kalniņš began playing the instrument at the age of ten, when his father, in the process of making a kokle, perhaps casually asked his son if he wanted to play the instrument. Kalniņš quickly answered yes, and, since then, has immersed himself in the sound and performance of this instrument.

Almost the entire record is just Kalniņš performing his own instrumental compositions on the kokle. As it is just the sound of the kokle, the works have a timeless quality about them, that they still sound ancient, even though they are new. It is also telling that many of the compositions have bucolic or pastoral titles, such as the lively ‘Pavasara lietutiņš’, or the undulating ‘Pļava’, indicating the link between the kokle and Latvian nature.

The more mystical elements of the kokle appear in songs like ‘Maldugunis’, whose rhythmic pulsations give the impression of a song of conjuring, or ‘Veļu laikā’, where Kalniņš is joined by Viesturs Āboltiņš on the stabule, or reed pipe, and the two create atmospheric musical imagery of the time of the spirits.

One of the few compositions with modern elements is the title track ‘Laika gaitā’, where Aigars Kalniņš provides a distorted electric guitar accompaniment. The harsh sound of the guitar is slightly out of place with the rest of the sound of the record, but it does serve to show that the sound of the kokle can still effectively blend together with more modern instruments.

At just over half an hour of music, Namejs Kalniņš’ album Laika gaitā leaves listeners wanting more. Kalniņš adeptly brings forth the many facets and aspects of kokle performance, both the mystical and elemental tones of the instrument, creating a rich palette with this Latvian instrument. As Kalniņš himself notes, this is just the beginning of his musical journey, but it is an auspicious debut, and one looks forward to hearing more of his compositions.

For further information, please visit Namejs Kalniņš Facebook page.

Laika gaitā

Namejs Kalniņš

Lauska, CD086, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Pavasara lietutiņš
  2. Pļavā
  3. Kad saulīte norietēja
  4. Amata – video
  5. Maldugunis
  6. Piparu polka
  7. Rasas miega dziesmiņa
  8. Bišu dancis
  9. Putenis
  10. Vakara dancis
  11. Veļu laiks
  12. Laika gaitā
  13. Pērkons nāk
  14. Mājup

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.