San Francisco festival brings out the sun

According to a West Coast Latvian Song Festival insider, the management of last summer’s song festival hotel in Chicago had only one complaint about the Latvian guests who overtook their hotel last July: too many tried to cram into the elevators, causing one elevator to get stuck with approximately 27 guests onboard. This might explain the brightly colored signs warning guests not to crowd into elevators in San Francisco’s Cathedral Hill hotel, site of the recent 14th West Coast Latvian Song Festival.

I knew I was in for a good Latvian week soon after my arrival in California. A friend (Latvian, of course) and I flew to San Francisco, and did some driving and sightseeing for a few days before settling down in San Francisco for the festival, which ran from Aug. 28-Sept. 1. Our first evening was spent in Monterey, where we ran into Zinta Zariņa, head of the festival’s organizing committee, and her husband in a grocery store. The world sure is small when you’re Latvian!

I was surprised at the number of Latvians who made the trip to San Francisco from places such as Minneapolis or New York. But I suppose some of us have a great (or, maybe, unnatural) love for song festivals and wish to generously support the travel industry. Perhaps some had heard about previous West Coast song festivals—how the smaller scale make them very friendly and relaxed.

The festival began Aug. 28 with a cabaret performance and a cable car bar-hop aimed at the younger crowd. Naturally, the younger people on the cable car tour had a great time. And the reviews I heard of the cabaret were nothing but rave.

Friday, Aug. 29, was the busiest day for most festivalgoers. It began with the opening ceremony, which, like most such Latvian events, featured speeches that tended to run a few sentences too long.

But the entertainment portion featured the wonderful Los Angeles men’s choir, looking rather dashing in their tuxedos. These 18 men, many of whom are on the younger side (particularly for a Latvian choir), were a joy to listen to and watch, particularly when singing more energetic songs. The audience most enjoyed the song “Mūžu mūžos būs dziesma,” with its appropriate words: “Mūžu mūžos būs dziesma, mūžu mūžos alus smeķes; Un dziesmu svētkos ies meitenes baltās zeķēs.” Another song that emphasized their masculinity had the words, “Meitenes brunči ir karogs man” (at which point the choir saluted). The encore, “Manai dzimtenei,” also was a hit.

Unfortunately, the event began late, and ended only a few minutes before the next one was supposed to begin. This had major ramifications for the rest of the day.

The youth musical, “Gudrais padomiņš” (Good Advice), began a half-hour late, and suffered bouts of poor sound quality. Neither of these problems really distracted from the brilliance of this new musical. The text author and director Andra St. Invanyi Berkolds, composer and musical director Lolita Ritmane and lyricist Andris Ritmanis wrote a truly enjoyable musical and did a magnificent job encouraging an incredibly talented and spunky group of kids and teens to bring the story to life.

The main characters, Linda and Miķelis, played by 15-year-old Brita Stepe and 16-year-old Aleksanders Auzers, did truly commendable jobs in their large roles. And the talent of some of the younger performers was quite amazing. The very professional set decorations, costumes and lighting added additional panache to the musical. The longer-than-expected performance (fine for adults, but a bit long for the youngest audience members) featured eleven songs. Those of us willing to spend USD 6 could purchase a beautiful program book with all the song texts, a good synopsis and fun biographies of the performers. Everyone in the room, both audience and performers, seemed to enjoy this fabulous performance. I can only hope that the musical will be performed in the future—whether by the same or different cast—so that others will be able to relish the fun story of a Latvian-American teenage girl from California and a Latvian boy from the past.

The late start of “Gudrais padomiņš” and the short period of time between the two events, held in the same ballroom, caused technical problems for the next event, the concert by Latvia’s Iļģi. Their performance began 40 minutes late, and the first half of the concert was hampered by problems with sound. By the second set, the problems were partially overcome. The second set was especially energetic and certainly many would have preferred dancing to sitting at that point. Many of the older generation, apparently not knowing what to expect, did not enjoy the concert as much as those of us who already know and love one of Latvia’s best bands.

The day ended with a 1960s theme party, where quite a few attendees wore appropriate attire. The ‘60s music played by the always-great Latvian-American band, Los Pintos, was a great addition to the party.

The big event on Saturday, Aug. 30, was the folk dance performance. The theater, located in the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts complex, had 1,000 seats and every single one was occupied. Fortunately, even the view from the very last row, where I sat, was good.

For those of us used to large-scale, arena-filling performances featuring several hundred dancers, this performance, with dance groups from only a few cities, was a drastic change. Some audience members found it refreshing, others a bit dull. However, everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing: We couldn’t understand the significance or the need for an opening solo of a song about San Francisco—in English! I, for one, do not attend Latvian folk dance performances to hear songs in English. Of the many dances performed, the crowd favorites were anything where children performed and the dance “Zaļumballe,” performed by Seattle’s Trejdeksnītis, which saw an encore. It’s hard not to enjoy a dance in which a female dancer is thrown by two male dancers into the arms of another male dancer. The dancing was greatly enhanced by the live music provided by Denveras Jurmalnieki and Iļģi.

That evening many people attended the musical “Tobago!,” about which I heard mixed reviews. At the same time the always fun Denveras Jurmalnieki were performing a free concert of dance music in the hotel. It was encouraging and rather heartwarming to see a good number of younger Latvians (mostly middle-school aged and younger) enthusiastically and willingly participating in rotaļas and dances.

The last performance was the unified choir concert. I had expected the choir to be a bit bigger; however, the beautiful and acoustically excellent San Francisco Symphony Hall did cause the choir to sound larger. The performance had been scheduled to take place at the Herbst Theater, but a few days before the festival, the city’s fire department decided that the expected number of people would be too many for the theater.

Each Latvian has choir songs they like and don’t like. A typical concert usually contains a few of each. In this concert, the overwhelming crowd favorites were anything with the children’s choir, who not only sang with the larger united choir, but also performed four songs on their own. The audience enthusiastically requested that “Jūras māte man vaicāja” (complete with appropriate gestures) be repeated. The most interesting work was “Rudentiņš pie durvīm klauvē,” featuring lyrics by Andris Ritmanis and music Lolita Ritmane, conducted by Brigita Ritmane. It was both an appropriate and very enjoyable piece.

The evening’s festival ball featured an unbeatable combination of musicians: Iļģi and Los Pintos. At times they played separately, at times together. Late in the evening an enthusiastic and well-received rendition of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” was sung by guest performer Artūrs Rūsis (maybe better known as producer of the now-cancelled NBC television drama, Providence). The greatest cheers were elicited when he sang “Latvian girl” instead of “brown-eyed girl.”

The hotel wanted the party to be over at 2 a.m., but the partygoers and bands resisted. After the bands played a rocking, marathon version of the folk song “Bēdu, manu lielu bēdu,” the partygoers were asked to leave the ballroom. However, hotel employees did push a grand piano into the foyer—apparently in an attempt to get all those crazy Latvians to stay in one place rather than wander throughout the entire hotel. A loud and energetic singing marathon ensued, led by Chicagoan Sandra Bērzupe on the piano and a bunch of song-happy teenagers.

By the time the singing was winding down around 4 a.m., most of the Iļģi appeared with their instruments and amplifier. Band leader Ilga Reizniece loves to teach traditional Latvian dances, which is what she did for two hours (occasionally playing the fiddle and dancing simultaneously). The number of dancers and onlookers varied from about 15 to 40. The band played its final song around 6 a.m.

Then someone suggested going up to the roof to watch the sunrise. A small group of people, some of whom were still sharp enough to ensure the doors would not lock behind us and leave us stranded on the roof, did exactly that. Somehow it was an appropriate way to top off a very enjoyable West Coast Latvian Song Festival.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *