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.

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