Recent album shows Juris Karlsons’ imagination & skill with theatrical music

Few composers have contributed as much to the Latvian academic repertoire than Juris Karlsons. Over his many decades of composition, he has enriched almost all genres with his contributions. Particularly notable is his contribution to the field of theater and stage music.

To spotlight this section of Karlsons’ oeuvre, the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and conductor Guntis Kuzma recorded some of Karlsons’ compositions for and inspired by the stage, and the resulting album, entitled Dzīves un nāves dejas (Dances of Life and Death) was released in 2023.

One of French playwright Pierre Corneille’s best known works is Le Cid, about the legendary Spanish warrior El Cid. Karlsons’ work “El Cid. Dzīves un nāves dejas” was inspired by this play (as well as a production of the play at the Riga Dailes Theater in 1996), and Karlsons encapsulates the story and legend in this work.  The subtitle (meaning ‘Dances of Life and Death’) already indicates the dramatic, perhaps fatalistic nature of the work, and Karlsons’ music expressively presents the story. The interplay between the woodwinds and the brass instruments is vividly performed by Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. As the work moves from moments of levity to moments of deep foreboding, the orchestra builds upon the intensity contained in Karlsons’ work.

Latvian playwright Rūdolfs Blaumanis added many memorable plays to the world of Latvian literature, but perhaps none is as beloved as Skroderdienas Silmačos, a play set in the time of Jāņi (midsummer). It is a work that continues to play to packed houses every summer in Latvia. Inspired by Blaumanis’ work, Karlsons composed the music for “Antonija #Silmači”, a ballet based upon the play.

A tender and bucolic melody opens the first work in the suite, entitled ‘Antonija’, Antonija being the owner of the Silmači farmstead and a young widow. Karlsons’ tender music is tinged with sadness, and the orchestra’s sweeping performance creates a deep and layered portrayal of Antonija. The image of Antonija is then followed by the energetic, even galloping ‘Skroderi nāk’, inspired by the approach of the travelling tailors to Silmači, musically imagining the preparations and apprehensions for some.

Though ostensibly a comedy, Skroderdienas Silmačos still carries a lot of emotional weight and drama, and Karlsons’ music brings forth the many layers of Blaumanis’ play. This can be seen in the vivacious and even turbulent ‘Zāra’, about the Jewish dressmaker of the same name, and her romance with Joske, the son of merchant Ābrams. There is a similar storminess in ‘Bites’ (Bees), which may also be partially inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, a work famous for its frantic depiction of the winged insect, and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra skillfully and artfully performs this work of technical intricacies.

The album also contains Karlsons’ ‘Jāzepa vīzijas’ (Joseph’s Visions), music inspired by a 1981 production of ‘Jāzeps un viņa brāļi’, a tragedy written by famed Latvian poet Rainis, and itself inspired by the Old Testament story of Joseph, the son of Jacob. Weaving together Middle Eastern motifs with the broad orchestral palette, Karlsons creates an engrossing musical vision, revealing the modern parallels to be found in this ancient story. This work is also the only one to feature vocals, a searing vocal performance by baritone Daumants Kalniņš.

Dzīves un nāves dejas is a memorable document of composer Juris Karlsons’ rich imagination and skill with theatrical music. These works (or, one might call them ‘visions’) bring together many dramatic and even comedic threads, and, when performed by such skillful musicians such as the Liepāja Symphony orchestra and conductor Guntis Kuzma, reveal a lush theatrical world.

For further information, please visit the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra website.

Juris Karlsons – Dzīves un nāves dejas

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, conductor Guntis Kuzma

LMIC/SKANI 148, 2023

Track listing:

1. El Cid. Dzīves un nāves dejas

Suite from the ballet Antonija #Silmači

2. Antonija

3. Skroderi nāk

4. Zāra

5. Pindacīša un Ābrams

6. Aleksis un Elīna

7. Bites

8. Cik b(l)ēdīgi tie vecāki

9. Antonija un Aleksis

10. Fināls

11. Jāzepa vīzijas

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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