Letts Do It: Little Latvia Packs a Big Musical Punch

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LUCERNE, Switzerland--I came to this idyllic lakeside musical capital to conduct some research as well as to do reporting for an article I will write for you in short order. On my one free evening I went to a concert by the Luzern Symphony Orchestra (which locals refer to as the LSO, though Londoners might beg to differ) at the acoustically marvelous KKL concert hall. It was conducted by the orchestra’s excellent young music director, the New York-born James Gaffigan.

The music was all by Sergei Rachmaninoff and made clear that this great composer was much more than his famous showpiece piano concertos. The second half was devoted to the grand symphony known as The Bells, which includes a large orchestra, piano, organ, three vocal soloists and a massive chorus that is central to the work’s success. During the piece I consulted the program to find out which Swiss chorus was performing so splendidly and discovered it was, in fact, the State Chorus of Latvia.

As it happens, I have been developing an article about the boomlet of excellent singers and other musicians who seem to be arriving on world stages all at once from this small Baltic nation of two million people. Upon hearing this wonderful chorus, I decided to find out more, including why a Swiss orchestra would import a chorus from so far away.

I asked Numa Bischof Ullmann, the general director of the Luzern Symphony Orchestra, why a chorus was brought in rather than using a local group. He told me, “I felt it was important for The Bells to have a chorus completely at home with the Russian language but also with the context this music came from.” To find such a group, he asked people whose judgment he trusted, including the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi and the Latvian violinist and conductor Gidon Kremer. “Both mentioned the State Chorus of Latvia and Järvi said that [the Latvian conductor] Mariss Jansons would concur.”

Below is an interesting 8-minute video, in Latvian and English, that includes images of the chorus at the Riga cathedral as well as of Maris Sirmais, its leader.

What was special about their performance here in Lucerne was not only their beautiful voices but their scrupulous musicianship and the way they listened to one another as they performed. The resonances they created were evident to the audience, which gave them a rapturous ovation. After the performance, many audience members made a mad dash to the Jesuit church a few streets away because the chorus was heading there too. 

Just 25 minutes after the concert concluded, the Latvians gave a stunning account of Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Vespers, a one-hour work for unaccompanied chorus that made even more palpable the way they sing not as a group of soloists brought together, but as a group in tune with each other's sound and spirit. From high sopranos down to deep rolling basses, this was music-making of the highest order.

Latvia is a nation that sings. I have only visited there once, in 1979, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. But I know that it shares a trait with two neighbors, Estonia and Finland, where I am frequent visitor: as nations with small populations who speak unusual languages, the choral tradition serves to promote a sense of collective identity and helps keep the languages alive, whether they are threatened by a foreign power or by English’s creeping globalization.

Latvia has boy choirs; women’s choirs, including one that won its category in a world championship; youth choruses; a national radio chorus; and many other groups. But it has also produced some world-class soloists who have made a splash at the leading opera houses. They have the musicianly virtues I found in the State Choir as well as excellent acting skills and stage deportment. And each of the leading Latvian female singers happens to be very beautiful, which is a plus.

Foremost among these is the mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca. May 2013 she was given the prestigious honor of Kammersanger of the Vienna State Opera, a rare accolade for an artist who is not even near her peak. Apart from her physical beauty, she is distinct because she not only has the vocal flexibility for Mozart and Rossini but has also sung dramatic roles with power and elegance. Anyone who saw her as Carmen at the Met (replacing Anna Gheorghiu, who should never have chosen to do the role) recalls Garanca’s sensational singing, acting and stage presence. 

Garanca was a stunning Sesto in the Met’s revival of La Clemenza di Tito in November 2012, which was transmitted worldwide in HD. When the video, which also has Barbara Frittoli and Giuseppe Filianoti, is released it will definitely be worth owning. Her pairing with Jonas Kaufmann as Charlotte and Werther in Massenet’s romantic opera looks to be one of the highlights of the the Met’s 2013-2014 season. Watch this profile of her in which she talks about what it means to be Latvian and in music.

Elina Garanca is not the only Latvian woman attracting attention. There is soprano Marina Rebeka, whom I heard last February in Amsterdam as an excellent Mathilde in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Dutch National Opera. Her clear but lustrous voice and beauty make her ideal for Mozart and bel canto repertory.

Listening to the Latvian soprano Maija Kovaleska sing, you can hear the influence of Mirella Freni, with whom she studied. She excells at Puccini, Verdi and Russian-language roles. She was a beautiful Tatiana in Eugene Onegin at the Vienna State Opera.

Kristine Opolais is another Latvian soprano whose timbre has a richness one does not find everywhere. She is popular in London and is part of a musical power couple that includes her husband, conductor Andris Nelsons, who has just accepted the important and highly prestigious post of music director of the Boston Symphony. He has the same position at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and is one of the hottest conductors of his generation.

For those who care about the life and work of Richard Wagner, Latvia represents an important early chapter. In June 1837, at the age of 24, he got his first important job as the music director of the opera house in Riga, the Latvian capital. He honed his conducting skills there, learned what an orchestra can do, and acquired a sense of life in a theater that produced operas. He also developed or expanded some of his good and bad traits, including the inability to manage money. Wagner and his wife Minna hurriedly left in 1839 after their creditors demanded money owed them. The Wagners set sail for London and were caught in a huge storm that provided inspriration, in the head of this creative genius, for the music that starts Der fliegende Holländer.

Wagner’s radical ideas about the potential use of orchestral instruments for expressing color and character expanded in Riga. His ideas permeated the musicians there and have, in various ways, been passed down. Many of the current musicians take pride in the orchestra’s relationship to Wagner. This means that there is a pronounced awareness of conductors and their roles. Not surprisingly, they take interest in conductors in this small nation, which has produced several important figures.

Therefore, conductors such as Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons and Gidon Kremer are steeped in this musical tradition that emphasizes collaborative listening among musicians as part of their performance practice. I have come to admire Kremer’s chamber ensemble, the Kremerata Baltica, which gathers young musicians from the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

It heartens me to write this article because, in so doing, I realize that it answers a complaint I so often hear, that there are no interesting young singers around who have the requisite gifts to make opera interesting. The singing I have heard from the soloists listed above, as well as the amazing State Choir, makes me realize that if the craft is taught with care and taken seriously by those who would engage in it, the future is brighter. And it helps that the Latvians not only have a passion for music but the determination to achieve that Elina Garanca alluded to in the video she appears in.

Let us hope the Latvian way with music can spread elsewhere.