West Coast song festival gets under way

It has already been a busy summer for Latvians, so what’s one more big event? The West Coast Latvian Song Festival starts Aug. 28 and runs through Sept. 1 in the seaside California city of Ventura.

Considered a regional rather than a national song festival, the West Coast event is expected to draw from 1,000 to 1,200 participants and audience members, said Pauls Berkolds, chairman of the festival organizing committee.

The West Coast festival was first held in 1962 and usually takes place in larger cities such as Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco or Seattle. This is the first time the festival is set for Ventura, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Los Angeles along the Pacific Ocean.

Befitting its smaller scale, festival organizers have chosen to highlight regional talent.

“We have to show that which is local,” Berkolds said in a telephone interview. While singers and dancers will join the festival from beyond the West Coast and the United States, the bulk of the performers will come from the Latvian communities in California, Oregon and Washington state.

“We expect all the West Coast choirs,” Berkolds added.

Although this summer also saw a national song festival in Latvia, organizers of the West Coast festival were not too worried about what effect it would have on events in Ventura.

“We thought about it,” Berkolds said. “We figured that those who are going to Latvia will go to Latvia. But many from (the West Coast) also were not going to go.”

The West Coast festival helps bring the Latvian community together, he said.

“This festival has to happen because—no matter how much we want to go to Latvia—events like this motivate work here. We need these kinds of activities.”

Berkolds cited one example: The Los Angeles folk dance ensemble Pērkonītis saw a burst of interest with about 20 young dancers joining, something that if not for the festival probably would not have happened.

Thursday, Aug. 28

The festival kicks off at 4 p.m. Aug. 28 with the opening ceremonies—featuring the Los Angeles-based men’s choir Uzdziedāsim brāļi—in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 450 E. Harbor Blvd., Ventura. The hotel rooms allocated for the festival sold out months ago. In all, more than 500 rooms have been booked in the Crowne Plaza and other hotels.

One of the highlights of the festival is expected to be a two-act musical, “Vēstule no Losas” (Letter from L.A.), which is to see its debut at 8 p.m. Aug. 28 in the auditorium of Buena High School, 5670 Telegraph Road, Ventura.

With words by well-known Latvian-American lyricist Andris Ritmanis and music by Lolita Ritmane and Brigita Jameson, the story centers on a nouveau riche Latvian family and what happens when a girl from Valmiera, Latvia, comes to stay for a year. The cast includes a number of names easily recognized among Latvians in the United States, such as Jūlija Plostniece, Māra Zommere, Andra Staško and Edvīns Rūsis. Also participating are 25 chorists and dancers. The musical is directed by Staško and Jameson, while musical director is Ritmane.

Friday, Aug. 29

Events on Aug. 29 include the 9 a.m. opening of a three-day crafts fair in the Crowne Plaza and the 10 a.m. opening of a three-day art exhibit, “Small Wonders from Latvia,” in the San Buenaventura Artists Union Gallery, 330 South California Street Plaza, Ventura. An event for children, featuring the youth music ensemble Dzegūzīte from Latvia, begins at 11 a.m. in the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Pianist Juris Žvikovs and the Rīga Academy Choir will perform a concert of Latvian composers’ works at 3 p.m. in the San Buenaventura Mission, 211 E. Main St., Ventura.

A repeat performance of “Vēstule no Losas” is scheduled at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 in Buena High School, followed by the opening ball beginning at 9 p.m. in the Crowne Plaza.

Saturday, Aug. 30

Festivalgoers may start Saturday morning, Aug. 30, with the second day of the crafts fair or sit in on a writer’s conference and poetry reading scheduled at 9:30 a.m. in the Crowne Plaza.

Berkolds, besides chairing the West Coast festival’s organizing committee, is a respected singer. But in Ventura he also will be testing his acting skills. A new one-act comedy, “Hotel Paradiso” by Berkolds’ wife Andra St. Ivanyi Berkolda, includes a lead role written especially for him. The play will be performed at 1 p.m. in Buena High School. Written in the style of an English comedy, the story takes place in a hotel in the resort community of Jūrmala, Latvia. Also starring in the play are soprano Laila Saliņa of New York and pianist Žvikovs.

A hundred folk dancers from the United States, Canada and Latvia will perform at 4 p.m. in the auditorium of Ventura High School, 2 North Catalina, Ventura.

Evening events on Aug. 30 include an 8 p.m. repeat performance of “Hotel Paradiso.” At 9 p.m., a novuss tournament and a youth dance get under way in the Crowne Plaza.

Sunday, Aug. 31

Morning events on Sunday, Aug. 31, include an 8 a.m. church service in the Crowne Plaza and an 11 a.m. performance in Plaza Park by the folk dance troupe Saime from Latvia. It is also the last day to visit the art exhibit and the crafts fair.

The festival’s traditional choir concert begins at 4 p.m. in the auditorium of Ventura High School. The combined choir of 200 singers will perform new and traditional works by Latvian composers.

The festival winds down with a 9 p.m. final ball scheduled in the Crowne Plaza and the Ventura Beach Marriott Hotel, 2055 East Harbor Blvd., Ventura.

Friday, Sept. 1

For those still in town, the parting breakfast from 10 a.m. to noon in the Crowne Plaza offers a last chance to visit with acquaintances.

Future festivals

Berkolds said he looks forward to the more intimate venues of the West Coast festival, and suggested the smaller scale may help make the event a success. The national festivals in the United States have had difficulty finding venues that can comfortably hold the several thousand Latvians who attend.

The price tag for the West Coast festival will be about USD 100,000, Berkolds said, but some of cost is covered by support from local Latvian organizations, the American Latvian Association, the Latvian Foundation and the Daugavas Vanagi welfare association. Festival organizers also received discounts from the local school district and the Ventura Chamber of Commerce has provided information support.

Where the next West Coast festival might be—if there is to be one—is not clear. Latvians in Seattle were considering hosting it, but decided they could not, Berkolds said. The next festival would be scheduled in 2012, which would be 50 years since that first festival in 1962.

“It would be really fine,” Berkolds said, “if one more festival could be put together for that 50th anniversary.”

Pauls Berkolds

Pauls Berkolds, an accomplished opera singer, is chairman of the West Coast Latvian Song Festival, which runs from Aug. 28-Sept. 1 in Ventura, Calif.

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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