Opera Xeniae by Juris Ābols recorded by Latvian Radio Choir

Latvia, a land of musicians and composers, has provided the world with many distinctive and unusual compositions and performances – from harsh and unforgiving to beautiful and angelic, the spectrum continues to broaden and become even more panoramic with each passing year. One composer that consistently remained outside this spectrum is the late Juris Ābols, as his works defy classification or even description. A self-proclaimed ‘Dadaist’, Ābols followed no rules, broke just about every convention, and made little effort to make his compositions understandable, even decipherable.

However, this stubbornness is what makes Ābols’ works so unique, even memorable. Ābols, who passed away in 2020, had a long and fruitful working relationship with the Latvian Radio Choir, who recorded many of his works, including his choral cycle (or, in Ābols’ description, ‘cumulative cantata’) ‘Jautrā sabiedrība’, released in 2009. As a tribute to the late composer, in 2022, the Latvian national record label Skani released the Latvian Radio Choir’s recording of what is perhaps Ābols’ magnum opus – the opera Xeniae.

The booklet notes that the opera has ‘a libretto based on motifs in the work of Martial and Aristophanes’, and Latvian Radio Choir conductor Sigvards Kļava offers one of Ābols’ abstract explanations – “the place and existential struggle of the creative person in today’s global and cosmic world”. The CD booklet contains a discussion of the work and the composer between Kļava and musicologist Orests Silabriedis, where both gamely try to make sense of it all. It is telling that Kļava notes that when Ābols presented some of the score to him, Kļava wasn’t sure which way to turn the score, was it upside down or right-side up!

The work itself is a bewildering mishmash of styles, sounds and ideas. It is a difficult listen, since Ābols seems to intentionally not want to develop any musical theme before moving on to a different theme in a different style. Sacred music gives way to Balkan elements which transform into jazz and then to Mongolian throat singing, all in the space of minutes. Spoken word alternates with singing. The libretto is included in the CD booklet, but that offers little help in understanding the ‘story’ (if there even is one).

Listeners may find this a challenging listen, as the rapid tonal and style shifts are disconcerting, even disorienting. It will also be up to the listener to interpret this – is there a method to this madness or is it just random musical ideas stitched together. But perhaps that is the charm of this work, that it is really up to each individual listener to find meaning – or accept that there is no meaning. The Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava, however, deserve praise for throwing themselves headlong into this recording and performance, and treating the often absurd material with a professional approach, even a sense of reverence for the creative vision of Juris Ābols, even as the work occasionally wanders into profane territory (texts about body parts and functions, among other elements). There are many moments of beauty, even whimsy, throughout the opera, but one does wish that Ābols had developed some of the musical ideas more thoroughly before moving onto the next idea.

The CD booklet also includes a touching epitaph to Juris Ābols by Sigvards Kļava, and Kļava describes many of the charming (and occasionally highly bizarre) quirks of the composer, such as Ābols’ tendency to smear himself in turpentine when he got sick, or about one of Ābols’ compositions about globalization (a favorite theme of the composer), but much of the text was about bacteria.

Xenia is occasionally bewildering, occasionally fascinating, due to its incongruous mixture of styles, but never dull, thanks to the spirited performance by the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava. Though one gets the sense the performers were not quite sure of what they were singing, they give it their all, and the performances are vivacious and often humorous. Composer Juris Ābols’ creative skills are on full display here, and one has to admire the composer for blithely ignoring all compositional rules and traditions to create a singular work like Xenia.

Juris Ābols: Opera Xeniae

Latvian Radio Choir, conductor Sigvards Kļava

Skani LMIC 140, 2022

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and the Skani website.

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.

25 years of Kremerata Baltica with works of Plakidis, Pētersons and Pelēcis

Since its founding in 1997, the Kremerata Baltica string chamber orchestra, led by its namesake, Latvian born violin maestro Gidon Kremer, has become one of the premiere string ensembles worldwide. Bringing together the finest talents from the Baltic States, the group has toured throughout the world and won numerous awards.

Throughout its quarter century of performance, Kremer and Kremerata Baltica have also championed the works of Baltic composers. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, and to also celebrate the work of Latvian composers, the ensemble released the album ppp in 2022, collecting works by Latvian composers whose last name ends in ‘P’ –  Pēteris Plakidis, Kristaps Pētersons, and Georgs Pelēcis.

Another interpretation of the album’s title – ppp – would be the musical term pianississimo, or, ‘very, very quiet’, and while there are many quiet moments on the album, there is still much energy and fire (and volume) in the performances. Plakidis, who passed away in 2017, provides the “Little Concerto for two violins” for this collection. While not truly a ‘concerto’ – only Kremer and violinist Madara Pētersone perform this work, the interplay between the two violins gives the work an orchestral feel. The melancholic second movement – “Vakara mūzika” (Evening Music) displays Plakidis’ skill with melody, as well as Kremer’s and Pētersone’s talents in revealing the aching emotion and sadness in the work. The third movement – “Ceļš” (Road) – has more tension, but concludes in a celebratory atmosphere, with the two violins creating vivacious fanfares.

The next composer to be spotlighted on the album is Kristaps Pētersons, who has contributed three compositions to this collection. The first is “Ground” for double bass solo, performed by the composer himself. The slow, deliberate and very quiet performance is punctuated by sudden percussive sonic effects (which sound like the performer striking the instrument with his bow), giving the work an ominous, uneasy atmosphere. This is followed up by the mathematical “π = 3,14” for two double basses (Pētersons is joined by Iurii Gavrilyuk also on double bass, as well as Andrei Pushkarev on vibraphone). Perhaps inspired by the mysterious, unending sequence of decimal places of π, the work is full of mystery, perhaps it is a search for something that cannot be found. Pushkarev’s vibraphone adds an additional enigmatic layer to the work, adding to the captivating mood.

Pētersons also provides the three movement “Music for a Large Ensemble”, which is performed by the new ensemble Kremerata Lettonica (formed during the pandemic, and made up of musicians from Latvia). The brief first movement begins with ominous rumbling,  while the second is built upon a pulsating, repeating string motif, while the other instruments circle around in a meditative ascension. The first two movements are also characterized by sonic explorations, and even the composer himself comments that these movements are “monotonous dead ends of sounds”. The harsher third movement, featuring an uneasy electric guitar performance by Pētersons, builds up the tension only to dissipate with a plaintive squeal of strings. The musicians of Kremerata Lettonica skillfully reveal the many nuances and layers in Pētersons’ complex work.

With his beautiful and melancholy works, composer Georgs Pelēcis has made a name for himself worldwide, and his popularity continues to grow, aided by his fruitful, long-term collaboration with Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica. On this album, the ensemble presents Pelēcis’ ‘Three pieces from Fiori Musicali’, which displays many of the elements that have distinguished Pelēcis, particularly his Baroque-inspired melodic lines and emotionally rich atmospheres. The work is directly inspired by music of that era, as per the CD booklet, the composer “named this blooming garden Fiori Musicali after Girolamo Frescobaldi’s collection of liturgical organ music from the 17th century.” Kremerata Baltica capture the tender essence and melancholic beauty of Pelēcis’ music, resulting in a moving and soul-stirring performance.

In the hands of singularly talented musicians such as Gidon Kremer and the musicians of Kremerata Baltica, these works by Plakidis, Pētersons and Pelēcis are elevated to a lofty musical perch. Though the music and styles of the three composers are markedly different, the ensemble reveals the many unique facets of each of the works, and, at the same time, displaying the creative talents of these composers. ppp is both a testament to the creative skills of these three composers as well as to the instrumental talent of Gidon Kremer and the musicians of Kremerata Baltica.

For further information, please visit the Kremerata Baltica website and the Skani website.


Kremerata Baltica

LMIC/SKANi 139, 2022

Track listing:

Pēteris Plakidis

Mazs koncerts divām vijolēm / Little Concerto for two violins

1 I. Sadziedāšanās / Singing Together

2 II. Vakara mūzika / Evening Music

3 III. Ceļš / The Road

Kristaps Pētersons

4 Ground kontrabasam solo / for double bass solo

5 π = 3,14 diviem kontrabasiem, sitaminstrumentiem un ierakstam / for two double basses, percussion, and recording

Mūzika lielam ansamblim / Music for a Large Ensemble

6 I. ♪ = 124

7 II. ♪ = 82

8 III. ♪ = 124

Georgs Pelēcis

Trīs skaņdarbi no krājuma Fiori Musicali / Three pieces from Fiori Musicali

9 Vientuļā kalla / The Lone Calla

10 Peoniju deja / Dance of the Peonies

11 Kosmejas skumjas / Cosmea Melancholy

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.

‘My Century’ – autobiography of Kristaps Keggi M.D. is a remarkable life story

My Century by Kristaps Keggi M.D., 2022, 360 pages

Of the many remarkable American Latvian success stories, the life and career of Kristaps Keggi M.D. is one of the most exceptional. A child fleeing war and Soviet terror departs Latvia, spends time in refugee camps, then arrives in the United States with his family, not much to his name, but grows up to become one of the most respected orthopedic surgeons in the world.

Now nearly 90 years in age, his storied career took him all over the world – from the United States, to Vietnam, throughout Russia, as well as back to Latvia. Dr. Keggi has collected his many experiences and, in 2022, published a memoir entitled My Century, subtitled “A memoir of war, peace and pioneering in the operating room”. At times terrifying, other times humorous, it even has some unexpected intrigue, particularly in Keggi’s travels in the former Soviet Union. Keggi also writes about his experience being a surgeon during the Vietnam War. Keggi is also blessed with an exceptional memory, and he shares many detailed anecdotes about the people who he has met throughout his life, even if briefly – the stories are often touching, occasionally tragic.

Keggi writes in a brisk, matter of fact style, even laconic at times. Perhaps befitting a surgeon, the writing is crisp and to the point, without unnecessary flowery adornments (for example, one chapter is simply entitled ‘Other Russian People and Places’). He also helpfully provides historical background for many of the events in his life, such as Latvian history, which may not be familiar to all readers. He also goes into medical detail about his many innovations in orthopedic surgery, particularly hip procedures. Keggi also writes extensively about his teaching and his sharing of knowledge with medical professionals all over the world, as well as his extensive charitable work. Keggi also has a droll sense of humor, amusingly using medical terminology in sentences like this about a Playboy Playmate visiting Vietnam – ‘They had to settle for a view of her deltoids, having hoped for bared gluteus maximus muscles which … would have been worth visualization.’

Anecdotes that Keggi shares include the shocking story of the time he was a person of interest in a murder investigation (the still unsolved murder of Dr. Mary Sherman of New Orleans, who Keggi was supposed to meet while traveling through the area), as well his work and friendship with Aleksey Stepanovich Shindjajev – the #2 man in the KGB, with whom Keggi worked with extensively, and Keggi details many adventures that could even be considered Cold War thrillers.

The most harrowing and poignant section of the memoir is Dr. Keggi’s experiences as a surgeon in Vietnam during the war. Life and death situations, difficult decisions, and the near constant presence of death and terror fill Keggi’s time in Vietnam, including the story of being part of a “lost hospital”, a surgical hospital that was the scene of a chaotic withdrawal, leaving the surgical team members abandoned near the Cambodian border.

Though Dr. Keggi has had an amazing, successful life, he does concede that there has been quite a bit of good luck and fortune that has helped him throughout his life. From the Soviet army pausing before their assault on Riga at the end of World War II (which gave Keggi’s family time to escape) or surviving a fire in a burning tent full of explosive medical materials in Vietnam, and even enduring the mental breakdown of a soldier with a loaded rifle that luckily jammed, also in Vietnam.

Keggi’s memoir is also timely, having been released not long after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Though Keggi does make a case for the benefits of the United States having a positive relationship with Russia, particularly due to the many positive relationships and friendships he has had with Russians throughout his career, he added a postscript to the memoir about a colleague Olafs Libermanis from Latvia who immediately traveled to the war zone in Ukraine to help, and Keggi is there with him in spirit.

My Century by Kristaps Keggi M.D. is an amazing story of war, medicine, and the many noteworthy people who have passed through Keggi’s life. It makes for engaging and informative reading for Latvians, medical students and professionals, or anyone interested in history. Dr. Keggi’s story is an inspiration, and his attention to detail imbues his memoir with vivid images and scenes, making for a remarkable and memorable life story.

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.