Kamēr choir’s “Pelēcis/Plakidis” CD features sacred and secular works

The youth choir Kamēr…, long renowned for its high artistic quality, has also recorded many groundbreaking and noteworthy CDs. Many new compositions have been written especially for them, and their recording output includes collections of such songs such as World Sun Songs (2008), Mēness dziesmas (2012), and Amber Songs (2014). On their latest CD, recorded under the watchful eye of artistic director Jānis Liepiņš and released in 2017, they have chosen to record works by two significant Latvian composers – Georgs Pelēcis and Pēteris Plakidis, on a collection simply entitled Pelēcis / Plakidis.

At first glance, it may seem like a curious choice to combine the two composers onto one album. The immediate connection is that both composers were born in 1947 and celebrated their 70th birthdays in 2017. Pelēcis is known for his sacred works, often with Russian Orthodox themes, while the late Plakidis (who passed away in 2017) often composed more secular choir works based on poetry by Latvian authors. However, there is a clear spiritual and emotional element in the works of both composers, which provides for a musical link between the two.

The sacred nature of Pelēcis’ choral compositions is made clear from the Russian Orthodox inspired works on this collection, such as the vivacious ‘Hristos Voskrese’ and the more somber ‘Otche Nash’. Pelēcis is clearly at home in this genre, and his sacred works are at once deeply spiritual and personal, and have the necessary respectful and reverent interpretation by Kamēr…

One of Plakidis’ most powerful choir works is ‘Tavas saknes tavā zemē’, with poetry by Vizma Belševica. This song was included as part of the closing choral concert of the 2018 Song Festival, and was one of the most memorable and moving moments of the event. The song, with its quiet and slow introduction, which builds to a thunderous crescendo, is a richly emotional work, and, when performed by Kamēr…, this transcendent work receives an equally transcendent performance. Though composed during the Soviet occupation, this song, with its lyrics about taking root in the Latvian land still resonates with listeners today.

Though Pelēcis does focus more on Orthodox choral works, his creative output also includes arrangements of Latvian folksongs, but still with a spiritual interpretation, such as the arrangement of ‘Stāvēju, dziedāju’. Though seemingly just a song about singing on a hilltop, Pelēcis’ interpretation is almost hymn-like, like a song of praise for singing itself, giving this folk song a beautiful richness and depth.

With its repeated refrain of ‘Viss labais aiziet debesīs’ (All good things fly heavenwards), Plakidis’ ‘In Memoriam’ (lyrics by Latvian poet Broņislava Martuževa) is a weighty and meditative work, and, as its title would indicate, almost requiem-like. The sound of the choir, particularly the appropriately heavenly soprano parts, makes for a memorable rendition of this work.

The CD booklet includes brief biographies of the composers and the choir in Latvian and English, but one does wish they delved further into the song selection – why these particular songs were selected for this collection as well as their significance and meaning.

Combining the choral works of Georgs Pelēcis and Pēteris Plakidis on the collection Pelēcis / Plakidis, the youth choir Kamēr… again confirms not only their singing and artistic skill, but also their innate ability to interpret the works of Latvian composers, elevating them and revealing the many spiritual and romantic nuances within them. Still, though, considering the broad and varied oeuvre of both composers, one might have hoped that each had a CD entirely devoted to their works (particularly Plakidis, considering his recent passing and his significant choral music legacy). Conductor and artistic director Jānis Liepiņš (who, at the time of this writing, had recently departed Kamēr… and turned over direction of the choir to Aivis Greters) has overseen an excellent and richly nuanced recording, confirming the significant contributions of both these composers to Latvian choir music.

For further information, please visit the youth choir Kamēr… website.

Pelēcis/Plakidis

Youth Choir Kamēr…

Biedrība Kamēr mūzika, KCD014, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Hristos voskrese – Georgs Pelēcis
  2. Otche nash – Georgs Pelēcis
  3. I See His Blood Upon the Rose – Georgs Pelēcis
  4. Eksapostilārijs – Georgs Pelēcis
  5. Credo – Georgs Pelēcis
  6. In Memoriam – Pēteris Plakidis
  7. Tavas saknes tavā zemē – Pēteris Plakidis
  8. Vasaras vidus dziesmiņa – Pēteris Plakidis
  9. Stāvēju, dziedāju – Georgs Pelēcis
  10. Man dziesmiņu nepietrūka – Georgs Pelēcis
  11. Izkal pakavu akmens zirgam – Pēteris Plakidis
  12. Bumburjānis bumburēja – Pēteris Plakidis
  13. Fatamorgana – Pēteris Plakidis
  14. Aleluja – Georgs Pelēcis
  15. Ausmas stundā – Pēteris Plakidis

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.

Latvian elections: what should we be voting for?

The election is rapidly approaching and as Latvians in the diaspora, we should appreciate that for many Latvians living in Latvia the 27 years since independence have brought unwelcome as well as welcome changes and consequently in some quarters there is voter dissatisfaction with the whole political process. We should remember that voting in Latvia is not compulsory and that some will abstain or vote as a knee-jerk reaction because of disappointment with previous governments.

So, it is particularly important that we inform ourselves and use our votes wisely.

But how to make the choice?

We should consider what the Latvian government should do over the next four years, in the economy, education, defence … and which of the political candidates might be able to achieve this result? Look at the leader of your preferred list of candidates and ask yourself whether you would buy a used car from this person … if he/she does not seem honourable, don’t entrust them with running the country!

Personalities aside, there is another very important point to consider when making your choice. Latvia is recognised as a modern, democratic European country, which is expected to keep up with the advanced countries of the world. Latvia punches way above its weight in the fields of business and arts innovation. Unfortunately, we don’t have many politicians at this level. We have a string of popular and respected politicians, but many of these are still 20th century people with 20th century ideas, they are afraid of our contemporary open world and don’t know how to communicate with it effectively. For some, habits of mind and behaviour instilled during the Soviet occupation continue to shape political interactions.

Latvia stands on the threshold of a dynamic four years – not only internally, but in terms of the next EU budget, the future of NATO, the relationship between the West and Russia, and similar critical policy areas. For this reason, it is important that the next Latvian government is made up of forward-thinking, educated young people who have the knowledge and will to work in 21st century conditions. To give the green light to the younger generation, we can use the Latvian voting system’s uniquely offered opportunity to mark a candidate with a “plus” sign or strike him or her from the list. Contemporary, forward thinking candidates can be found in almost all the lists and it is they who should be supported for the overall benefit of our country. We may be very fond of an experienced old horse, but we need a car to even think of entering the Grand Prix.

How to choose your candidates

To navigate the Latvian political landscape, I will use the subjective approach I have developed to guide my own decisions. The Latvian political landscape can’t be easily divided into “good” and “bad”. It can be described in two dimensions as “experienced” vs. “new” and “predictable” vs. “unpredictable”, so we can each make our own decision based on our priorities.

We can understand those voters who choose to stay with the status quo. After all, the “Vienotība”, NA and ZZS coalition has, in the main, been in power since 2009 and has given Latvians some stability. Some negative aspects of this fragile stability are: Aivars Lembergs in the coalition, the OIK scandal over the corrupt funneling of “green energy” money, the lack of transparency in appointing solvency administrators. In short, the coalition has many faults. However, this government has put Latvia on a sound course that leads in the right direction – towards economic strength, integration into the EU and NATO, sustainable fiscal policies and more. This has been achieved at great cost, so it would be foolhardy indeed to allow its destruction by some barely hatched “saviours of the people”. Latvia has a lot to lose, we must be mindful of our choices.

We can also understand those voters who have decided not to support the existing government. The current coalition seems to have lost drive, energy and capacity to govern. The most obvious example is the implosion of the once-great party “Vienotība”, brought about by internal conflicts, which has frightened off many of its supporters. The other two experienced parties – Nacionālā Apvienība and ZZS – have also suffered from corruption and other scandals. Therefore, perhaps it is indeed worthwhile to seek some new alternative – even if only to change the personalities in the ruling elite. It would not be reasonable to expect young people wanting to make a career in Latvian politics to join these stagnant old parties. There is certainly a case to be made for voting for young people.

The “experienced” and “new” divide does not fall in the same place as the “predictable” and “unpredictable” divide.

The “predictable” parties are those which, despite pre-election rhetoric, can be relied upon, if they come to power, to make considered judgements on matters of policy. They share the same underlying values that have underpinned the current development of Latvia as having a free, internationally viable market economy:

  • strong support of the NATO alliance in defence
  • the importance of maintaining the Latvian language and culture in the public arena alongside respectful relations with the minority groups in Latvia
  • welfare reforms in line with contemporary thinking
  • macroeconomic stability
  • true democracy.

All the “predictable” parties may bend their rhetoric to interpret these values, but would agree that they are fundamental to Latvia’s future.

On the other hand, the “unpredictable” parties have demonstrated by previous behaviour that they are quite capable of stepping aside from such principles for short-term gains. With “unpredictable” parties in power, anything could happen. Some would argue that risks need to be taken for the possibility of great future gains – but who would ultimately benefit? It seems unlikely that it would be the voters. If, for example, “Saskaņa” or KPV.LV were part of the ruling coalition, what would they do? These parties themselves have not given any clear indication. Are voters ready to take such a leap into the unknown?

Using this two-dimensional model, the parties line up as shown in the attached diagram. Please notice that just because a party is experienced, it is not necessarily predictable (e.g. ZZS) and that some of the new parties are predictable, particularly with respect to their basic values. The subjective aspects of the diagram will, no doubt, be modified by each of you, according to your personal political inclinations.

Campaigns and current events

In the Latvian political system, a vote for a particular party is also a vote for the coalition that party is likely to form – no party has ever governed by itself. Therefore, the individual party programs should be taken with a grain of salt, they are more a list of aspirations than of policies. If your party gains a place in the ruling coalition, the government policies will be those agreed upon by this coalition. Coalition partners are carefully chosen. The hot topic in the press is what role the social-democratic party “Saskaņa” might take in a ruling coalition. Despite the media hype, there remains only a very small possibility that this might happen. However, we should be aware that the Artuss Kaimiņš scandal-riddled KPV.LV party has consistently avoided stating its position on co-operation with “Saskaņa”. This has caused a great deal of speculation. An example of this is the connection between KPV.LV and prominent politician and millionaire Ainārs Šlesers, who is a part owner of the newspaper “Dienas Bizness” which regularly supports KPV.LV and denigrates its opponents. However, although it is predicted that KPV.LV will fare well at the ballot box, it remains highly unlikely that it, together with “Saskaņa”, would constitute a majority.

Political polls over the past month have varied widely in quality and methodology, which has been reflected in the vast array of pre-poll predictions. It seems certain that the next Saeima will include “Saskaņa” and ZZS, most probably as the two largest factions. It is highly likely that Nacionālā Apvienība VL!-TB/LNNK, Jaunā Konservatīvā partija and KPV.LV will also be represented. (KPV.LV has been touted as possibly receiving 5% – 15% of the vote.) The remaining parties are balancing on the 5% cut-off line: this includes the slightly refreshed “Jaunā Vienotība”, the liberal start-up “Attīstībai/PAR” and “Latvijas Reģiona Apvienība”. It is difficult to predict the results for these parties. A dark horse in the field is Tatjanas Ždanokas pro-Kremlin “Latvijas Krievu savienība” (LKS), which has popular journalist Andrejs Mamikins amongst its candidates. This party has not done well in the ratings, but its voter base tends not to disclose voting preferences, so it is not out of the question that “Saskaņa” may have a left-based rival.

Taking into account the broad spectrum of political parties and ideologies on offer, it is conceivable that the next Saeima may be very fragmented. The current Saeima has representatives from 6 parties, the next one could potentially see representation of up to 9 parties. This could be a major stumbling block in the formation of the new governing coalition. Personalities, previous political history and pre-poll rhetoric will all have to be juggled by whoever is charged with forming the next governing coalition. Let us remember that the most unlikely coalitions can be forged into governments, as in the Saeima elections in 1995, when Andris Šķēle successfully managed a coalition consisting of 9 parties. Such a scenario is not ideal, but it can be workable for the day-to-day running of the government. The alternative of inviting “Saskaņa” to the table is not being realistically considered by any of the players.

In the end, it will be decided by arithmetic – the result of the will of the people, in which we each play a part.

Ivars Ījabs, specially commissioned by PBLA

“Ielūgums uz dzīvi” features 100 songs by Kaspars Dimiters

Singer and songwriter Kaspars Dimiters has been a major voice in Latvian music for decades now. His lyrics are often deeply personal, as well as being blunt and unvarnished observations about life in Latvia – how difficult it is for many and the struggles and challenges many face. His repertoire includes songs that touch on topics like alcoholism, drug abuse, corruption, and poverty, and, consequently, many of his songs are often dark and disturbing, but are still, on occasion, positive and hopeful.

Dimiters’ work as a songwriter now covers many decades, and, in 2017, to celebrate his 60th birthday, the artist released a combination book of lyrics and digital song collection entitled Ielūgums uz dzīvi, that collected 100 of his songs.

It is telling that one of Dimiters’ best known and most celebrated albums – 1994’s Krusta skola – is included in its entirety on this collection. This album, recorded with guitarist Gints Sola (who many will know from his work with Jauns mēness), is both polished and refined, with many songs inspired by his work with his Krusta skola center for troubled youth, as well as work with those suffering from alcohol or drug dependencies. Songs like ‘Glāze ūdens’ and ‘Pasaule ir tāda skola’ are, like many of the songs on the album, wordy and weighty, as Dimiters presents his often bleak world view.

Perhaps Dimiters’ best work is his 1988 album Mans kumoss pilsētas baložiem, and, for that era in Latvia, the album was almost revolutionary, considering its topics and lyrical style were different than just about everything else in Latvian music at the time. Perhaps only Dimiters could write a song like ‘Suņa dzīve’ – a heart wrenching song about a drunk and his dog, or the touching ‘Muzikants’, a song about a musician who dies mid-performance and is quickly replaced by someone else and forgotten. Ielūgums uz dzīvi contains almost all the songs from this landmark album.

Over the course of 100 songs, from his earliest songs (written in the 1970s) to songs written recently, Dimiters displays a broad range of emotions and topics. From the tragic ‘Fukušīmas suns’ (a song about the Fukushima disaster), to the hopeful ‘Visu Latvijai dodu’ (one of Dimiters’ few hopeful songs about Latvia), as well as the cynical ‘Dziesma par nolaupītajiem grašiem’ (Dimiters’ lament for the greed that he observes everywhere in Latvia), Dimiters can be at times bluntly harsh, as well as tenderly optimistic. Dimiters also finds inspiration from his Orthodox faith, in songs like ‘Puisēns ar lukturīti’, ‘Dzejnieks un svētums’ and ‘Nāve ir dzimšanas diena’. However, it does become clear that Dimiters becomes even more cynical with each passing year, and he has been an outspoken critic of Latvian politics and society throughout the years.

Though the album does include one hundred songs, which is probably more than enough for the average listener, one does wish that he did include more songs from earlier in his career. Most of the songs on the collection feature just Dimiters on vocals and guitar, and though that is certainly appropriate considering the personal nature of Dimiters’ songs, it does mean that the songs can sound very similar, if not occasionally monotonous. It helps that some of Dimiters’ songs from the 1980s (which often featured a full band) are sprinkled throughout, offering a change of pace from his more weighty songs from the 1990s and later. Some curious omissions are the rest of the songs from Mans kumoss pilsētas baložiem (such as ‘Ne šlāgerēt, ne līderēt’ and ‘Ne šlāgerēt, ne līderēt’) as well as other songs from his earlier period – like the beautiful and wistful duet with Sandra Ozolīte ‘Noburtie’ or the energetic ‘Rozianna’. However, almost all of Dimiters’ songs can be found on his website, for those looking for more to listen to.

Of course, if it is difficult to discuss Kaspars Dimiters without mentioning how controversial many of his words and actions have been throughout the years. Dimiters has spoken negatively about immigrants, politicians, diaspora Latvians, western liberals, and has reserved most of his extensive venom for homosexuals. Unfortunately, many of his abhorrent views have made it into his songs, but, fortunately, there are few of these kinds of songs on this collection – mercifully, songs like the dreadful ‘Zilā pasaka’ are not included here.

The one hundred songs (more than seven and a half hours of music) on Ielūgums uz dzīvi may be too much Dimiters for some. Others may find some of Dimiters’ expressed views to be so offensive as to dismiss listening to any of his songs out of hand. There lies the main puzzle of Dimiters – how can someone who, at times, espouses such extreme and hateful words be able to create such beautiful and moving songs? For those that are willing to give them a listen, Ielūgums uz dzīvi does indeed contain many songs that reveal Dimiters to be a songwriter without parallel, someone who writes very pointed and direct songs. Though often harsh and bleak, Dimiters’ songs can also be very affecting and poignant, with a direct and realistic language that few other poets have, and this collection is a thorough overview of Dimiters’ large contribution to Latvian music throughout the decades.

For more information visit Kaspars Dimiters’ 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.