The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 8: Identity, Diversity, Unity, and Marketing

In April of 2016, I began writing this series of articles entitled “The Making of a Dziesmu svētki” that ran every two months here on Latvians Online. The idea was to give a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into organizing a Latvian song and dance festival, told from the eyes of a first-time organizer. Ironically, despite putting out seven of these articles over the past year, I never actually discussed any of my own work. In my roles as secretary, webmaster and marketing team member, I was responsible for reaching out to various audiences through newspapers, blog posts, advertisements and, yes, this very series.

At the core of everything I worked on, and everything we all do as Dziesmu svētki organizers, is one issue: identity.

It’s a common theme in Latvian-American society, familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Latvian Independence Day celebration or Latvian-school graduation speech…. What is “latvietība”? What does Latvia mean to me? And so forth. Spoiler alert: the answer is… there is no single answer. Instead, each person has his or her own definition of what their identity means to them, and why various aspects of this identity are or are not as important as others. Which, yes, is a cliché, but it also happens to be true.

Well, that’s just dandy, but what does it mean in practice? Let’s say, hypothetically, that you are in charge of running a festival that is generally regarded as the most central event of an entire community. If each of our personal feelings about latvietība are different, how do we create an event that speaks to each of these (at times contradictory) views?

For example, let’s start with language. Language is, understandably, a central tenet of our Latvian identity. We are but a handful of keepers of a rapidly dimming light, and any threat to that light’s extinction is taken seriously — so seriously that, when one day the song festival changed its Facebook page title from Latvian to English (for the purely practical reason that we needed an English-language title to make Facebook’s donation feature work), we immediately received several disappointed, heartfelt pleas from Latvians demanding that we show more respect for our language and change the name back. Unfortunately, the title had to stay in English. English was also unavoidable in setting up our online ticket store and volunteer sign-up page.

Even in Latvian, navigating language can be tricky. If you ever want to start a serious throwdown in the Latvian-American dance community, just ask for the correct spelling of the Latvian word for choreographer. The ensuing debate will pit choreogrāfs, the spelling brought to the States after WWII, against horeogrāfs, the spelling currently used in Latvia. It isn’t just a debate about spelling; it’s a debate that pits two different cultural and linguistic evolutions against one another, as both sides strive to determine what degree of change threatens Latvian identity. All based on a single letter in a single word.

A similar decision had to be made about which word to use to describe the participating folk dance troupes. In Latvia, the dance designations kolektīvs (collective), ansamblis (ensemble) and kopa (troupe) are very specific, indicating various degrees of skill and reputation. Using those terms interchangeably can arouse a lot of passion and recrimination. (We chose to use the word grupa (group), hoping to avoid those minefields entirely.) Even capitalization can get tricky; it’s no mistake that I used all caps for the festival logo and website header.

In my work with the festival I had to think about not just how to use language, but when to use it. If we care about maintaining the Latvian community in America, we need to acknowledge the fact that each generation becomes less and less fluent in Latvian. For Latvian schools and camps, where immersion is crucial to maintaining what hold we can on the language, the attempt to balance immersion with inclusion is a seemingly impossible and ever-present struggle. Is Dziesmu svētki in the same boat? In my personal opinion, no. The spirit of Dziesmu svētki lives in aspects of our culture that transcend language. No matter how much you care about whether choregrāfs is spelled with a ch- or an h-, you can understand the joy of a polka or the pride emanating from the song Gaismas pils, and feel truly connected to your Latvian roots, fellow performers, friends and family.

We should work hard to safeguard our language, to be sure, but we should work just as hard to ensure that non-Latvian speakers feel included. Some marketing materials were by design prepared in only one language, based on the target audience (for example, Laiks articles in Latvian, this series in English). But mostly, the goal was to include everyone. Which meant twice the work. There are two separate, complete versions of the festival website — one in Latvian, one in English. Every time I wrote a blog post or created a new page, I had to create two versions, submit them to two different proofreaders and post them on two different sites.

Overall, though, accepting both languages has simplified matters for festival organizers, who vary widely in their language abilities. Any given discussion among the organizers oscillates between Latvian and English, based on the speaker’s comfort level.

Beyond language, the organizers also come from a wide range of backgrounds and have different interests, ages, hometowns and skill sets. All of these biographical details have been crucial to festival decision-making. The key has not been to make sure every organizer agrees 100% on every decision made, but to make sure every organizer sees a piece of him- or herself in the festival. Each of our connections to Dziesmu svētki is deeply personal, but also dramatically different from the person sitting next to us.

I noticed this diversity while working on what became my favorite little piece of Dziesmu svētki marketing: the website’s Featured Participant series. The idea of the series was to showcase the festival’s variety. I strove to find participants from various geographic regions, participating in every corner of the festival. Whenever I had a “tough day at the office” arguing about other festival matters, I came back to these features and remembered why we’re working on this event in the first place. Karīna Hāznere-Foltzer summed it up perfectly in her interview about dance troupe Pastalnieki: “Dziesmu svētki breathes life back into our community. It reenergizes, motivates and brings the community back together.”

Every single dance troupe I interviewed credited its recent success and growth to the inclusivity of the group and paid particular heed to its non Latvian-speaking members. One troupe is led by a non Latvian speaker. One is sending its largest dancer count in history. Another reassembled recently after a multi-decade hiatus. The end result is that the folk dancing show will feature a whopping 780 dancers — impressive, considering the rapidly shrinking numbers for festivals overall. In my opinion, this is the exact kind of love for culture we should be promoting.

Of course, there is more to diversity and identity than language. In addition to spotlighting dance troupes, choirs and high-profile musicians, the Featured Participant series covered other members of the community who play just as vital a role in rounding out the festival: craftsmen selling jewelry, textiles and other wares at the festival market; a celebrity chef bringing a literal taste of Latvia to attendees; and writers keeping the Latvian language alive at the Authors’ Circle. I noticed a trend running through virtually all of these interviews, regardless of the interviewee’s experience or background; they were excited to participate and be part of the community, and particularly excited to participate in a way that spoke to them personally. Graphic artist Irena Aizstrauts of festival vendor Wenchstock said, “Now my dancing days are over, I can’t sing two notes to save my life, but this is also a nice way to participate in Dziesmu svētki.”

Native Latvian, current Floridian and distinguished pianist Kristīne Griffin said, “I am eternally happy about and proud of Latvians who, despite all sorts of problems and by utilizing their talent, joy, perseverance, love and work ethic, have succeeded in enhancing Latvia’s beauty and carrying the name Latvia far out into the world.”

I heard it over and over, both in these interviews and elsewhere: I can’t speak Latvian, but I can dance. I can’t dance, but I can compose. I can’t sing or dance, but I can weave. My dance troupe only has eight members and the best dances all require twice that, but I can rearrange the choreography to scale it down. I don’t have a choir because I live in Alaska, but I will practice the songs on my own. Just as Griffin said — regardless of obstacles, the Latvians are coming, and coming strong, each bringing his or her own brand of Latvian strength along.

Let’s circle back to choreogrāfs versus horeogrāfs. I would guess that the majority of festival attendees don’t care. But what of those who do? Will they feel unwelcome or insulted if I use the “wrong” spelling on the website? I am not alone in feeling this pressure. In the sixth installment of this series, I learned that our music director, Krisīte Skare, conducted a thoroughly detailed analysis of every single song performed at every American Dziesmu svētki to make sure that she didn’t inadvertently stomp on tradition with her song selection. One of the expressions I dread most is “kā tas vienmēr ir bijis” (“as it has always been”), because my immediate reaction is Uh oh, has it really always been this way? Is that how we are doing it? I learned this year that Dziesmu svētki is just too big of an event for any one person to know everything that is happening, and there is a constant fear that some important detail will slip through the cracks despite our organizing committee’s combined, diverse knowledge.

I understand the frustration the public may feel if something at Dziesmu svētki doesn’t line up with what they expected. Trust me — I have felt the same frustration. Yet for each of these disappointments, I have met a different attendee who felt the polar opposite from me. No matter what, every single preference for every single attendee simply cannot be accommodated. Instead, perhaps we could consider any disagreement about how the festival should run or what it should look like as an amazing example of just how many different people care about it, and how those people can come together and feel connected, despite their differences.

Dziesmu svētki is magical. My friends and family from across the country — plus countless spouses marrying into Latvian families, and my former Latvian school teachers, and a Triju Zvaigžņu ordenis–winning composer, and professional musicians from across the globe, and an entire troupe of rookie dancers, and a celebrity chef, and an army of Latvian jewelers, artists, and authors — get to enjoy singing together in one place with one voice (whether we are actually singing or not).

I hope I have done a decent job of reaching out to these people over the past year, and I welcome you all to Baltimore.

Latvians Online’s “The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” has been an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival. This 8th installment also appears in print in the festival guidebook “Vadonis. 

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit or write to

The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 7: Crunch Time

Nineteen months ago, a small group of D.C. area Latvians nervously met up at Lost Dog Cafe, a local pizza and sandwich joint in northern Virginia, and listened to their friend Marisa Gudrā pitch a crazy idea; we should host dziesmu svētki.  One week ago, a similarly-sized group gathered around a table at Captain Larry’s, a Latvian-owned bar and restaurant in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood.  We were unwinding after what had been a particularly productive meeting focused on final gametime logistics.  It is amazing to think how much has happened in this short time.

 I view our journey thus far as being divided into three fuzzy, uneven sections: preliminary planning, initial public involvement, and crunch time.  The majority of this series has thus far addressed initial planning, with some forays into initial public involvement.  We worked hard to select a city, to find capable personnel to lead projects, to find venues and set a schedule and plan a budget.  This period lasted from roughly November through last summer.  Once the stars were aligned, we pushed our boulder off the cliff and watched what happened, and things became real as we opened the festival up to the public.  For the overall-logistics-based organizing committee, this meant opening up hotel blocks, ticket sales, and fundraising avenues to gauge interest and numbers.  For the music committee and folk dancing show organizers it meant opening up choir and dance troupe registration and sending out materials so that the performers could begin a year’s worth of preparations for the big shows.  Other organizers who we haven’t discussed yet in this series got their balls rolling, too.  Philadelphia’s Inta Grunde and llze Rēķis Bērziņa opened up registration and collected payments from Latvian craftspeople and vendors for the festival marketplace.  ALA Office of Cultural Affairs director Līga Ejupe sent out calls for submissions to the festival’s art exhibit. And Boston-based Karmena Ziediņa, director of the festival’s new choreography contest, sent out contest rules and deadlines and waited for the competitors to work on their creations.

 With the arrival of 2017, each project’s crunch times began.  Vendor sign-up ended for the marketplace, and Grunde and Rēķis Bērziņa turned to the complex tetris game of figuring out how to best pack in the large number of merchant tables.  Artist submissions came as a slow trickle for the first few months, then flooded in right before the springtime deadline, and Ejupe got to work planning out logistics of artwork spacing and transportation, and planning for an opening reception.  With the first couple months of early ticket sales complete, ticket coordinator Inga Bebris began the gargantuan and often thankless task of mailing paper tickets out to hundreds of individuals. She enlisted the help of her parents, Lolita and Jānis, and especially of their spacious dining room table, and every other weekend the family sat down together for an evening of family bonding and envelope stuffing.

January brought the deadline for new choreography contest submissions.  At that point submitted videos and apraksti (step by step dance instructions) were collected into a secret online location and then released back to the competing choreographers and dance troupes, who then were given a set amount of time in which to rate their competitors based on a handful of specific criteria.  This score, decided months before dancers step foot in Baltimore, makes up the majority of any dance’s score, with the live show’s small panel of expert judges (whose identity remains a well-kept secret until showtime to ensure no improper influence) only contributing a smaller percentage.  Here in these final days of crunch time, Ziediņa is focusing mainly on gametime logistics; meeting with Lyric Opera House staff, finalizing decorations (provided by Broadway set guru Andris Krūmkalns), and working out a detailed day-of rehearsal schedule that allows each dance exactly ten minutes onstage.

Crunch time is also an excellent time to test out our own resiliency.  Did early planning make us surefooted enough to roll with punches instead of crumbling?  The most dramatic and public test revolves around our theater production.  We were understandably nervous when, shortly after deciding to accept the Latvian National Theater with their dark comedy “Ceļā uz Mājām,” we heard news that a different Latvian theater had just had their performance visas denied and had to cancel a U.S. tour. With a determined gulp, Iveta Grava, Aivars Osvalds, and Dace Aperāne committed countless hours and cramped fingers to dotting every i and crossing every t on a mountain of visa application paperwork, yet after splurging on expedited shipping, we received the disappointing news that our actors’ visas were denied. Not giving up, Grava, our theater coordinator, set to work both preparing materials for an appeal, and searching for an emergency backup plan. She found one in Northern California, where the San Francisco Theater Workshop was in the midst of a well-received family-friendly musical “Emīls un Berlīnes Zēni.” When our appeal was denied in the spring, we hit the ground running and announced the program change, bracing for impact from any fallout from angry audience members.  No fallout came; most people chose to keep their tickets despite the wildly different shows, and some of the few who did return tickets even instructed us to keep their money instead of issuing a refund. Storm survived! Until we sailed right into a hurricane; the news media in Latvia had caught wind of the visa denial, and suddenly all eyes in Latvia were looking at us in Baltimore. Higher powers intervened, and suddenly the visa denial was reversed. We found ourselves with two separate theater shows in an already packed festival schedule.  I wish we could say that we never for a second considered dropping either show, because the more the merrier, but the truth is that we would be irresponsible organizers if we had not stopped to consider the impact of such a boomeranging change on our budget and/or credibility.  Still, after extensive group discussions and planning, we managed to keep both shows, and if ticket sales are any indicator, then it appears that our audiences are happy with our decision.

The vast majority of credit involved in navigating this revolving theater situation goes to Grava, but the ripple effect impacted several other aspects of the festival and its organizers. Bebris has had to be extra diligent in working out ticket calculations, and the same goes for treasurer Juris Mohseni (who amazingly happened to be on an off-the-grid vacation in Africa when these events unfolded and returned to find that all hell had broken loose). Marketing team members agonized over how to most clearly present this complicated situation to the public.  And other festival events had to be altered, none more so than the Children’s Activities.  Originally intended to be three days worth of free drop-in activities for youngsters, the addition of kid-friendly “Emīls un Berlīnes Zēni,” combined with a kid-friendly musical presentation by Latvian folk group Iļģi, cut our three days of playtime to one.  Jolanta Stoops, our children’s program director, shows no sign of being bothered, beginning her updates at each committee meeting with, “I’m ready for anything, even if that anything ends up being nothing!”

In case you think Stoops is bored now that her kids’ program has been slimmed down, have no fear.  Stoops is also in charge of both Thursday evening’s Pub Night with AKRA, and recently also took on leadership of the PRINTFUL Stage program.  In these final weeks leading up to Baltimore, Stoops is busy recruiting performers to sign up for the informal open mic style performances which will take place in the Renaissance hotel’s atrium. Also still recruiting in these final weeks is Volunteer coordinator Aija Moeller.  During Phase One Moeller worked out a plan and timeline.  During Phase Two all other organizers were instructed to figure out the exact number of volunteers that they might need for each of their events, a number that in many cases keeps fluctuating based on evolving circumstances.  Now in crunch time, Moeller has opened up a fantastic online tool, SignUp Genius, and is inviting everyone to donate a couple hours to help make everything run smoothly.

One of the most unfortunately crunched Crunch Time tasks is finalizing the Vadonis (official festival guidebook).  During Phase Two, requests went out to hundreds of individuals requesting information for the guidebook in both Latvian and English. These requests included bios and descriptions for festival participants (including not just dance troupes and choirs, but also choreographers, composers, and others), finalized programs for every festival show, formal letters from various community leaders, and various informative articles, not to mention administrative information such as festival schedules, lists of donors and organizers, and a hearty selection of advertisements.  Each word of this material needs to be proofread, and while efforts were made to get as much information as early as possible, the reality is that for many folks this information either hasn’t been fully known until recently, or it is frankly the sort of task that falls through the cracks. For weeks, content editor Aija Celms-Evans and layout editor Silvija Ozols have been poring over every page and word to prepare the 170-page long booklet in time for publication. In addition to the Vadonis, organizers are also preparing a Pavadonis (brochure-sized mini guidebook), as well as concert programs, all of which are now due for printing.

It seems impossible to count the remaining odds and ends of tasks that creep up in these final weeks and days. There are final arrangements with hotels, attempts to nail down final participant lists for various venues and events, final details being etched out regarding potential transportation, final organizer schedules to work out, final- well- final “everything,” really. But the amazing thing that it is difficult to wrap our brains around is the fact that these things we are still working on, they are actually the final things, the things that are supposed to be happening at this point, and while we are as busy as ever, we are by no means scrambling. And in just three weeks, we will be past final. We will be done.  Seeya in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

 The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit or write to

The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 6: The Music

I have a confession: when song-festival chair Marisa Gudrā first mentioned hosting dziesmu svētki, I had zero interest. Then she told me that Krisīte Skare was already on board as music director. Suddenly, I was interested.

I knew Skare from our time together at Gaŗezers Latvian summer high school, where she was not only my class’s valedictorian, but also a musical prodigy who I made a point of standing next to during choir rehearsals so I could try (unsuccessfully) to copy her perfect pitch.

It didn’t surprise me that Skare went on to earn three degrees in music, including a master’s degree in jazz performance from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and a master’s in education with a focus on the arts from Harvard University, and to establish a musical professional career as an educator, performer, music director, and choir leader. For the past ten years, Skare has also applied these skills to teaching Latvians, from the children of Katskiļi summer camp and Boston’s Latvian school to the adults of Boston’s choirs. And Skare brings more than music education to the Latvian community: she was the principal of Boston’s Latvian school for six years and is the current church treasurer. In recognition of all these contributions to the Latvian music and education scenes, Skare has earned commendations from the Latvian Heritage Foundation, the American Latvian Association, and Latvia’s Ministry of Education.

So I was comforted knowing that the core of our festival’s program was already in good hands. Skare herself had given the intimidating job offer maybe thirty seconds of thought before agreeing. “Dziesmu svētki is an extension of my passion and my work,” she explains. When someone offers you that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, “that’s not an offer that you pass up.”

Once it became clear that the festival would indeed be going ahead, and after Skare had a chance to meet with other festival leaders, she got to work assembling a crack team. She turned to Latvian friends with impressive musical pedigrees and was happy when every one responded positively. Laura Padega Zamura, the head of New York’s Latvian choir, had collaborated with Skare at Katskiļi summer camp and would play a major role in preparations for the Festival Choir Concert. Dace Aperāne, a composer and recent recipient of Latvia’s prestigious Grand Music Award for popularizing Latvian music abroad, is, in Skare’s words, “a treasure trove of knowledge for basically any musical subject matter.” Agita Arista is a professional flautist from Latvia now living in Boston who has become invaluable in working with the festival’s instrumentalists. And Iveta Grava, a former member of famed Latvian choir Ave Sol as well as a member of the festival organizing committee in D.C., pulls double duty, helping with administrative tasks on the music committee. With two organizers in Boston, two in New York, and one in D.C., the music committee exemplifies the collaborative nature of this East Coast project. It’s further supported by superstar shadow helpers like Juris Ķeniņš, a repeat organizer of Canada’s Latvian song festivals who is always ready to lend expertise and input, and Skare’s mother, Ilze, who has taken on some of the committee’s more thankless tasks — such as hand-numbering hundreds of songbooks after they arrived with a printer error.

With the team assembled, the most pressing matter for Skare was selecting the repertoire and preparing materials for the festival’s main event, the Kopkora koncerts (Festival Choir Concert). Skare started by entering every song from every previous festival into a spreadsheet and conducting a detailed analysis, from which she learned that, with a few exceptions, there is surprisingly little repetition or tradition where song selection is concerned. From there, the team’s members each compiled a dream list and started whittling. They began by keeping some lyrical folk favorites and newer, upbeat rhythmic pieces that complemented Skare’s effervescent musical personality, then decided to highlight a selection of East Coast composers. Each composer was asked to decide which of their songs they would like to see performed.

By the summer of 2016 the repertoire had been selected. Now came the hard part: finding and arranging all of the sheet music for each piece (while not infringing on copyrights). Thankfully, the music program has a guardian angel: Musica Baltica, a publishing house in Latvia whose leader just happens to be a friend of Aperāne. For a truly nominal licensing fee, Musica Baltica sent Skare the majority of the necessary sheet music, leaving her to write the remaining music out by hand. In September, the sheet-music songbook went to the printer, and soon thereafter distribution to choirs began, providing Skare her first solid look at the number and size of choirs participating. It turns out that this process is still continuing; several groups have signed up as recently as a couple weeks ago. Skare explains that it is often difficult to pin down exact participant numbers, since choirs can afford to be more flexible than dance troupes can. Still, the current estimate, based largely on the number of songbooks sent out, rests at roughly 500 singers from across the U.S., Canada, Latvia, and Ireland.

Conductor selection happened around this time as well. Part of the search focused on traditionally underrepresented demographics: East Coast icons (this will be the first Latvian American song festival on the East Coast in over three decades), experienced conductors who have never graced the kopkoris conductor’s podium, and female talent. Including women is particularly important to Skare, who remembers thinking, “I want to be her when I grow up!” when Toronto’s Vizma Maksiņa conducted at the Cleveland song festival twenty years ago. Skare went on to discover that women are tremendously underrepresented in the conducting world; Baltimore’s own symphony orchestra is the only major city orchestra in the country with a female music director — Marin Alsop.

Instrumentalist selection worked very differently, with the music team listing and contacting all professional Latvian instrumentalists they could think of who are skilled enough to play together after just one rehearsal. Invitations went out to everyone, and of the lengthy list, twenty-seven people accepted and will be performing in Baltimore. This means that all of the festival’s instrumentalists will be Latvians or have Latvian connections, whereas other festivals on occasion have had to hire local non-Latvians to fill the gaps. This musical bunch is a perfect example of how far-reaching song festivals can be, drawing participants from Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Canada, and Latvia.

The majority of these instrumentalists will be pulling double or triple duty. Almost all will be accompanying the choir during the Festival Choir Concert, most will perform at the Latvian Chamber Music Concert, and some will participate in the Sacred Music Concert. While the Festival Choir Concert is the grand cornerstone of every dziesmu svētki, attracting not only the largest audience but also the largest chunk of Skare’s time, the two smaller concerts are also definitely not to be missed, as the committee has dedicated itself to make them spectacular for all festival attendees.

The task of assembling the program for the Chamber Music Concert falls mostly to Arista. She, Skare, and the rest of the committee are acutely aware that chamber music has a reputation as being stuffy and stodgy. “People our age either are or are not in that world, and have their biases,” explains Skare. But the goal of Baltimore’s chamber music concert, she says, is to “be interesting for people who don’t think they like classical music.” Helping this effort is the concert’s unique venue: the American Visionary Art Museum, a whiskey warehouse turned hip alternative-art gallery that exudes fun and vibrance. An emcee will be on hand to explain what is happening in each piece. “Learning about the music gets you more invested in it,” explains Skare. And the concert’s programmers are striving to choose an engaging repertoire that will make a connection with the audience.

This connection will also be on hand at the Sacred Music Concert, where audience members sitting in the astoundingly beautiful sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church will literally be surrounded by the show. Musicians will place themselves in different locations around the chamber, depending on acoustics and the needs of each particular piece. Skare envisions the experience as a soothing meditation, enveloping listeners in ethereal melodies. Adding its talents will be the festival’s award-winning guest choir, Sōla, which is collaborating with Skare’s team on the project.

What remains to be done over the remaining few months? Skare is currently working on the Opening Ceremony with Anita Juberts, the Very Rev. Anita Vārsberga-Pāža, and festival folk-dancing director Astrīda Liziņš. The ceremony will welcome festivalgoers back to the East Coast with a mini-concert from various East Coast choirs and dance troupes. Also in the works or coming up soon: sheet music needs to be assembled and delivered to the instrumentalists for all shows, and the program for the Sacred Music Concert must be fully worked out with Sōla. Once those tasks are completed over the coming weeks, Skare’s focus will return to the Festival Choir Concert, for which the largest remaining task is figuring out gametime logistics: how to best divide up rehearsal times, how to maneuver several hundred people onstage and backstage, etc.

If Skare or her team of pros are at all daunted by the colossal task of leading several hundred musicians through four different performances for thousands of audience members, they’re not showing it. They didn’t even flinch last June when the original venue for one show went MIA (Skare shrugs this obstacle off — she’s used to venue staff being flighty). Skare partially credits her jazz training, which teaches her to roll with the unexpected. She is also bolstered by the encouragement and excitement she encounters from folks at every turn, despite (or perhaps because of) her relative youth. Skare is pleased that so many of this year’s organizers are, like her, taking on this massive project in their busy mid-thirties. “It’s nice to get the sense that people want to continue this tradition,” she says. “I hope it inspires a sense of hope for the future.”

Any advice for future festival leaders? “If you have a vision for the kind of experience that you want the Dziesmu Svētki public to have,” says Skare, “really stick with it and don’t waver. I think that’s what’s made a lot of my decision-making easy: I return to the big picture. That way you can remove yourself from nitty-gritty questions and then those become easier to answer.” Skare’s vision for Dziesmu Svētki is clear. “I as a musician have been to really boring concerts. How do we make this engaging and a little bit fresh and different?” Audiences will discover the answer this summer in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit or write to