Experience is key to Toronto festival

While there’s always something to criticize if you’re Latvian, most early reviews of the recent 11th Latvian Song Festival in Canada have been favorable. And, according to the man who led the festival’s organizing committee, it is Toronto’s long experience that helped make the Canada Day weekend (June 30-July 3) a success for an estimated 5,000 participants and spectators.

Arvīds Purvs, chair of the committee and one of the conductors during the large choir concert, should know: He’s been involved with the Toronto song festivals since 1959 on both the administrative and artistic sides.

“Toronto is the largest Latvian center…and the other smaller Latvian centers are around Toronto: Hamilton, London, St. Catherine’s, Niagara,” Purvs noted. Plus, Toronto has the facilities for large-scale events.

Toronto’s experience has evolved into a formula that appears to work, Purvs said. He said he doesn’t see the need to change much in the way things are done.

Several events during this year’s festival were sold out and had people talking about the performances. Among the highlights:

  • The chamber choir concert, featuring performances by well-known artists from Latvia (such as Dita Kalniņa and Arvīds Klišāns) as well as from the North American Latvian community (such as Rasma Lielmane, Artūrs Ozoliņš and Pēteris Zariņš).
  • The three-day run of "Minhauzena precības," a play by the late Mārtiņš Zīverts directed by Gunārs Vērenieks. Among the actors were Tālivaldis Lasmanis of the Drama Theatre of Valmiera and Mirdza Martinsone of the Dailes Theatre of Rīga.
  • The New Choreography Show in which top honors went to young choreographers Ināra Blatchina and Katrīna Tauriņa of Toronto for their children’s dance, “Vasaras rotaļa”; Iveta Asone of Indianapolis for her dance, “Mūsu pulkā nāc,” designed for fewer than eight pairs of dancers, and Zigurds Miezītis of Toronto for his “Dīžā žīga,” a choreography for eight or more pairs of dancers.
  • The spiritual music concert, featuring the women’s choir Ausma from Latvia as well as a number of choirs from Canada and the United States.

The first song festival in Canada was held in Toronto in 1953, only a few months after Latvians in Chicago organized the first song festival in the United States. And even though the number of Latvians who attend song festivals has dropped in recent years, the Toronto organizers did not question whether a festival should be held this year.

“The biggest unknown is how much the Latvian public is collapsing,” Purvs said in a July 2 interview in the Sheraton Hotel, headquarters for this year’s song festival. “If you look through the Latvian newspapers (in North America), then almost two pages are full of death notices. Those are people who at one time went and sang and danced and attended events, and now they no longer will go.”

Not knowing how many might come to the festival forced the Toronto committee to put together a conservative budget. Initial results, according to Purvs, appeared better than expected.

Profits from this year’s festival probably will not be as great as in years past, when the nonprofit society that runs the song festival in Canada was able to use proceeds to offer scholarships and other funding to Latvian organizations. More likely, any profits will be churned back into financing the next song festival—and Purvs is sure there will be another song festival in four years.

“One of the main reasons (to continue the festivals) is to support the work of choirs and folk dance groups,” Purvs said. “If there’s not a song festival, then the choirs will not be as active, they don’t have a goal.” Of course, he added, choirs and folk dance groups don’t exist just for the festivals, but the festivals do serve as milestones.

Canada’s experience with the song festivals actually goes back to 1952, when the Daugavas Vanagi veterans aid group organized a day of song on Sept. 6, similar to those held in Displaced Persons camps in Europe, according to a history of song festivals written by Valentīns Bērzkalns. About 2,000 people attended the event in Toronto’s Massey Hall.

The first song festival in Canada took place in October 1953. Attendance was in part dampened by the fact that the first festival in Chicago had already taken place in May, according to Bērzkalns’ book. An estimated 3,200 people listened to the joint choir concert, the festival’s main attraction.

Over the years, attendance and participation grew, reaching its high point during the fifth festival, when 10,600 people listened to the joint choir concert, according to song festival records. However, the renewal of Latvia’s independence in 1991 sharply cut into attendance. Only about 4,400 people attended the joint choir concert that year, a nearly 50 percent plunge from attendance at the previous festival in 1986. This year’s joint choir concert was expected to draw an audience of 2,800, Purvs said.

The numbers continue to be low, yet Purvs said he senses a resurgence of interest in the song festival and other Latvian community activities—despite the naysayers who predicted the end of song festivals outside of Latvia. Even though many Latvians now spend the summer months traveling from North America to Latvia, the initial euphoria has worn off.

“People began to slowly realize…we’re not returning home to Latvia. We’ll live right here and probably die here,” Purvs said. “And we need our own festival.”

Although for years many of the same people worked on arranging the festival, younger faces are now seen more often among the organizers. But, Purvs added, the younger organizers have grown up with the festivals.

However, he does not expect that the number of younger organizers and participants will replace the numbers of song festival veterans who have passed away.

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)

Arvīds Purvs

Arvīds Purvs is chair of the Toronto song festival’s organizing committee. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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