One choir singer’s view of the song festival

Back in Rīga after an exhausting eight-day trip to the 12th Latvian Song Festival in Canada, I wanted to put down a few words about experiencing the song festival from the stage and being in the Latvianized Toronto environment.

I didn’t want to make this just a dry narrative of each day there (the festival ran July 1-4), rather more of a recollection of some of the brighter (and less bright) moments in the festival for me. So let me pour myself a cup of tea with honey (my voice is a bit worse for wear after all this!) and tell the tale…

Having moved to Latvia late last year, I wanted to continue singing in a choir and ended up in Juventus, the choir of the University of Latvia. (They don’t really mind that I have never been a student at the university.) Juventus was invited to the song festival to participate in the major choir performances as well as give its own concert.

Not every choir member could go. The choir officially has about 100 participants, but only about 40 could participate in the song festival.

Rehearsals for the song festival began months before our trip. Juventus was to participate in three separate concerts (our own concert, a sacred music concert, and the final combined choir concert), so there was a lot of material to learn. Even with rehearsals six hours a week, this was still a daunting task, because there were other concerts that we had to prepare for. For the festival, we had to prepare 22 songs for our own concert; eigtht for the sacred music concert, and a whopping 25 for the combined choir concert. Add the occasional extra piece here and there (our choir likes to break into song from time to time!) and that adds up to quite a few tunes. I’m sure there are people reading this who will say that that is no big deal, but I was at a particular disadvantage because I was so new to the choir and choir singing in general. Veteran choir singers will know how to sing “Gaismas pils” by heart, but it was a new one for me!

We arrived in Toronto on Sunday, July 27. Our first few days were spent on tourism, with our first rehearsal only on Wednesday. Monday was an excursion to the Lake of Bays, Tuesday to Niagara Falls. Wednesday during the day was a free day, and then work began in earnest Wednesday night. One of the more memorable moments Wednesday came much later in the evening. A local bar, Einstein’s (known as a a local Latvian hangout), was having an “open mike” night. Borrowing a guitar, I and a few other choir members performed three Latvian numbers for a very enthusiastic audience. Apologies to the girl who kept requesting “Es nenācu šai vietā.” I didn’t mean to ignore you but we had already settled on the songs for the evening. We went back to Einstein’s the following night, as there was a big Latvian contingent there. Due to the number of people, it took me 15 minutes to get a beer!

Another bright moment was our concert in St. Andrew’s Church. The church was packed to capacity with, I was told, more than a thousand people. Our first song was “Latvijas Universitātei” by Jāzeps Vītols. I was informed it was going to be sung without notes, which created a slight problem for me, as I don’t know the words or the melody by heart. For a good laugh, find a video of the concert and watch me try to mouth some of the words during this songs. Fortunately I could use the music for the rest of the concert, so hopefully my performance improved. Apparently the concert went very well, as we got many many compliments from many different people. Juventus truly has many talented singers (which begs the question of what exactly am I doing there) and I think the choir’s ability and capability shone through this concert from beginning to end. Most of the thanks for this goes to our conductor, Juris Kļaviņš.

In the brief space between rehearsals and concerts, I met my godmother and aunt), Rūta Rudzītis, whom I had not met in many years. Shameless plug: Rudzītis is also a writer and her latest book, Vecmāmiņ, kas ir trimda? is a must-read. It’s an autobiographical story of Rīga during World War II, as well as life in exile. The book contains the story in both Latvian and in English, so you can give it to just about anybody.

The sacred music concert July 2 in the Metropolitan United Church also went well, especially considering the works were of a more “serious” nature and, along with that, longer and more difficult. And while the other choirs had seats, ours had to stand for most of the two-hour concert — with no intermission!

Due to the rehearsal and concert schedule, we had little time to see anything else going on at the Song Festival. That’s un nfortunate, as I would have like to have seen the folk dance performance, as well as “Eslingena,” but time was really minimal. We did get free tickets to the orchestra concert, so it was nice to have a break from the perpetual rehearsal and concert cycle.

Then began work on the combined choir concert. With 350 singers, more than 20 songs and seven conductors, this thing was a monster! Rehearsals were rough and started at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday mornings. I have difficulty singing at 8 p.m., and 8 a.m. is even more difficult! Both rehearsals were about four hours long, but thankfully we were given breakfast and plenty of water. The first rehearsal was especially rough, as it was the first time all these singers sang together. A few songs were especially messy, and some worried faces were seen, presumably wondering if we were going to be able to pull them off.

A lot of people also were weary, especially on Sunday morning after the big party Saturday night! Nothing like trying to sing at 8 a.m. having had only four hours of sleep… My voice was already very strained by the previous concerts and rehearsals, and I was expecting it would be gone even before the concert began.

The song selection this year was a bit heavy on the more “mournful” songs, making our job even harder. I also learned that the two men’s choir songs were cut out of the program, which was unfortunate. I thought both works (“Mūžām zili” and “Aiz kalniņa miežus sēja”) were worth singing. Fortunately, our performance did improve, and the concert July 4 in Roy Thomson Hall went very well. The hall was again full. Of course, I had already developed a cold by then, and my nose began to run uncontrollably during the second set. The one tissue that I had amazingly remembered to put into my folk costume was drenched by the end.

The highlight of the combined choir concert was the very end. The audience was invited to join us in singing “Tev mūžām dzīvot, Latvija.” According to the conductor, this was intentionally slowed down to allow the audience to take a breath between verses. After all the bows were taken, everyone began singing “Pūt, vējiņi!” — nary a dry eye was left in the house after that.

One more party after this closing concert, this time at the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre, and the Song Festival was brought to a close. The bus rides to and from the Latvian center were also good fun, as everyone in the bus was singing the entire time.

Other notes on my experience at the song festival:

  • Certainly the average age of the audience and participants has gone up. Not including our choir, it seemed that most everyone was of the gray-haired variety. A lot of the young folk attended the festival, judging by the crowds at Einstein’s, but I guess they didn’t go to many of the concerts.
  • The organization, I thought, was excellent. With all these events and concerts and participants you would figure that a lot that could go wrong, but from what I saw (when I could keep my eyes open) it all went very smoothly.
  • Toronto itself is a really nice city. A highlight was eating in a Portuguese restaurant in the Portuguese section of town while watching Portugal defeat the Netherlands in the Euro 2004 football (soccer) tournament.

Big thanks go out to Juris Ķēniņš (and his wife, Māra) for organizing all of us, taking us out, arranging for transportation (including a fleet of 10 taxis one morning to take us to rehearsal), and doing all sorts of crazy things for us. Arturs Jansons also deserves thanks for organizing us, for spending time with us, and for being an all-around really cool guy. Thanks to the Rev. Māris Ķirsons for arranging dinner for a whole bunch of choir members at the farewell party. It was very much appreciated, especially by hungry and exhausted choir members. Thanks, too, to all the many other people who bought us drinks and gave us compliments. I for one was truly overwhelmed by the generosity of many of the audience. And, of course, thanks to Juventus conductor Juris Kļaviņš for giving me the opportunity to participate in an event of such magnitude. The entire trip will remain one of the brightest memories in my life.

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.

One thought on “One choir singer’s view of the song festival

  1. I am flattered that Egils mentioned my name in connection with arranging eats for some of the choir members at the Latvian Center.
    However, this was not just my undertaking; equally responsible were 2 of my friends: Ivars Berzins from New York and Juris Gertners formally from Chicago but now from garezers.

    Another thing—-reading the headline about one “choir singer” brought to mind such translation gems as: “Es esmu izskrejis no tiriem krekliem.” or “Es vel neesmu uztaisijis savu pratu.”
    There is a better English term is there not?

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