Most leading choral countries have one or two areas of strength. Childrens’ choirs, youth choirs, music education system, collegiate choirs, amateur choirs, choral conductor training, or professional choirs. Latvia has it all. Even in the context of the Nordic and Baltic choral movements, Latvia stands head and shoulders above the others. This country of only two million inhabitants has an embarrasment of riches in all things choral: choirs, be they amateur or professional, conductors, music, audience, and relevance.
I am here in Riga for a wonderful possibility. I will tomorrow be seated as an adjudicator in the national choral competition. Just to give an idea of the size and meaning of this competition:
– the selected 38 choirs have gone through two rounds of qualification
– the competition will be live on both national radio and television
– it will be shown on a big screen in the city centre for all interested
– the Latvian President and Minister of cultural affairs will attend
Part of the interest can be explained by the Centennary festivities of the nation, to which this competition is only a prelude. But the main reason is that choral singing in Latvia is a big deal – a central feature of national identity. It has much to do with the Song festivals that kept the flame burning during the Soviet times, but this is not only a nationalistic mass movement. It is also a movement defined by quality and ambition. The Latvians have a voice of their own, a tradition of sound and lots of interesting choral music with a distinct flavour.
But I won’t sing too many songs of praise before tomorrow. I will try to update this blog during breaks in the competition and write a deeper analysis once the dust settles (Sunday).
Program for the festival week, ending in the main Song celebration concert on Sunday week.
I now get why I was invited. The competition bears the epithet ‘Dziesmu kari’, which I believe literally means Song wars. Kari is the plural of karš, war (according to Madame Google). Who then better to adjudicate these battles than yours truly?
The choirs will sing three pieces each: one obligatory work, one work based on a Latvian folk song and one work of free choice. As the obligatory song of each category is from the Song celebration repertoire, the flavour is distinctly national. I hope this only enforces the unique quality of the event. I have a few hypotheses to test:
– there is a specific Latvian sound quality or ideal that is fairly constant across the board
– this ideal is tied to the Latvian language and music
– the quality of choral singing is reflected not only at the very top, but much deeper than in most countries.
Let’s put these to the test! 40 minutes to show time.
Jury working hard. 18 choirs down, 20 mixed choirs to go. It’s getting better by the session.
It did get even better. Ten left, unless I’ve counted wrong.
The senior choirs were pretty much what you would expect, especially considering a fairly lenient age demand (55). The male choirs were interesting. About half of them were ultra-traditional – the old the-stronger-you-sing-the-better style – and half more ‘modern’ in my ears, lighter, more flexible and more instrumental in their approach. Time might prove me wrong, but in five years time the tide might have changed for good. It is not by chance that the singers and conductors of the latter choirs were gonsiderably younger.
The female choirs were a stark contrast to the male choirs. They are made of the same fabric as the mixed choirs in voice production, style and ideals. This raises the question why male choirs so often seem to pursue a different aesthetic than other choirs. But maybe I will come back to that one at a later date.
The female choirs were, on the whole, very good, and a few of them were excellent. Compared to the etno-folk-pop influenced repertoire that dominates female choir music in the Nordic countries, this was delightfully traditional (a nice change, not better or worse as such). The female choir is a lovely instrument and it was a pleasure to hear so many good ones.
It is 10.45 pm and we are almost done with the deliberation. This was a long and good day. A bit of strife in the deliberation, but nothing major. I think everyone approves of the result as far as the top three of each category goes. All of them were worth prizes in any case.
The prize ceremony ended at 0.28. The President of Latvia handed out all the prizes, including the certificates of participation, seconded by the Minister of Culture. Talk about political relevance. It all ended with Sigvards Klava (conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir) conducting a couple of songs that everyone, including the Minister, knew by heart. Impressive to say the least.
Time for the promised analysis. Let’s see how my hypotheses played out.
1. There is a distinct Latvian sound ideal. There certainly seems to be one, but I got the distinct feeling that it is more due to a certain insularity than something considered and technically wrought. Singing starts in schools and the teacher-conductors have themselves tone through the system and sing in good choirs. The kids pick up the ideals first from their teachers and then from the competitions that are always around the corner (never underestimate the unifying power of choral competitions). Then come the Song celebrations (separately for the young singers in Latvia). The songs of the next Song celebration dominate the repertoire, moving everyone subtly in the same direction. And then you have the ideals carried by the choirs you emulate – and everyone does to some extent, because the system rewards those that do well in the common project. It is reminiscent of the Finnish choir movements (chamber choirs in the 60s to 80s, youth choirs a decade later, and even the female choirs from the 1990s onwards) – everyone does the same and you just try to do as well, or ideally, even better than the ones you emulate. Development happens gradually (evolution), not through violent changes (revolution). All in all, yes, there is a definite Latvian sound ideal, but it is not as considered as I assumed, but a natural product of the insular culture that has roots in the tough times after WW II.
2. The sound is rooted in the language. Yes and no. Latvian choirs sing mostly in Latvian and the characteristics of the language will automatically guide how one sings. For me, the key elements is the very round A vowel. It is pretty close to a [ɒ], much like the Swedish vowel. I think this backward quality creates room as it naturally lowers the larynx. It is s little difficult to see how a Latvian choir could sing with the same kind of ‘flat’ mouth as Finnish choirs easily achieve. This spaciousness (be it because of the vowel or some more reflected technical ideal) is especially beneficial for the sopranos, who seem to all sing with lovely roundness and ease.
3. Quality is defining feature of much more than the tip of the iceberg. Based on yesterday, absolutely. I’d say that perhaps 8 of the 38 choirs are of high international level (i.e. win all sorts of competitions around the globe), and the winner of the mixed choirs, Kamer, would definitely qualify as one of the very best amateur choirs in the world. But, just as impressively, the next 15 are not far off the pace and can create moments of incredible beauty or climax. And the last 15 are very enjoyable and sing with a sense of freedom and musicality.
I notice this has turned out into an oversized blog post, but I’ll still add a little bit of post-event analysis (it is now Monday, a couple of days after the competition).
a) Insularity, or putting all your eggs in the same basket
The strength of the tradition is based on a diverse uniformity. In a way, it is like a sufficiently large, isolated population (think Galapagos) – it evolves on its own terms. The music is predominately Latvian and in the Latvian language. Folk songs are drawn heavily upon in the new compositions for choir. The singers seem to be primarily of Latvian heritage (who, according to a census from 2011, are only 62% of the population), as do the conductors. All the major posts (professional choirs, professors, orchestral conductors, positions at the National Opera) are to the best of my knowledge held by Latvians. In this world of diversity and global trends, it is healthy to come across such uniformity and locality.
All eggs in the same basket also in the sense of the immense investment in choral singing. Schools, specialized music high schools, academic studies (the Academy department for Choral conducting has two full professors and four associate professors), wages for conductors paid by the cities and municipalities, the Song Celebration structure, two full-time professional choirs. It must cost and arm and a leg, but does it ever produce results!
One clear result is the skill level of the singers. They are throughly immersed in the style and the voice production ideals by the time they reach adulthood. Almost all the choirs in the competition were fairly big (the norm being 40+ singers) and only a few faces appeared more than once. With 38 choirs, this means some 1.500 singers – and even if you take the top 20 choirs, we are talking about just under 1.000 excellent choral singers. This was not only apparent in the quality of choral singing, but in the solos sung from within the choirs, which were as a norm excellent. It was also worth noting that while most of the choirs had a nice spread of people of different ages, the majority of the singers were fairly young. The machine keeps churning out excellent singers all the time. Combine this with well-trained conductors and you have, drumroll, a brilliant choral culture.
b) Choral conducting
It was quite apparent just by watching the conductors that they are well trained and master the music they are performing, especially when it was from their own tradition. At the same time, it was interesting to notice a very ‘choral’ conducting ideal that is quite detached from orchestral conducting (which the same Latvian conductors are also very good at). The hands are very high, most movements are round, away from the beat and often (in time) before the choir and most conductors mouthed the text continuously. The conducting is, on the whole, very expansive and expressive. There is a tendency towards over-interpretation, extreme rubato and a short spanned phrasing dominated by the text. At the same time, the contact between the conductors and singers is very intense and focused, but warm at the same time. The singers really throw themselves into the performances and seem to sing without fear.
c) New music
The two pillars of the repertoire seem to be traditional works in the Romantic style and new choral music. The latter was really well received by the discerning audience and one could even say, the more demanding it was, the better it was received. This new music is almost always diatonic and spiced up with diatonic clusters, aleatoric fields and driving rhythmic patters (often accompanied with a drum). The prevalence of diatonic harmonies does not mean that the music is easy. Besides the rhythmic demands, the writing is often very divided and the vocal ranges are extreme (low bass D to high soprano A was almost the norm). You have to remember that this is a country of two full-time professional choirs that regularly perform new Latvian music, which means composers can stretch the limits.
I had a distinct feeling that the composers of the newer works are very well versed in choral music and had probably sung in choirs themselves. This leads to the pieces being very idiomatic and accessible to choirs. At the same time, it includes the danger of sameness (again, the insularity).
d) Artistic and political relevance
It is always incredibly refreshing and heartening to visit a place where choral culture has relevance in the arts world, and is not only seen as an amateur activity and a necessary evil for the performance of major orchestral works with choir bits. To visit one where it also has political relevance is a wonderful experience. To have the the President and Minister of Culture seated listening to a national choral competition as members of the audience is enough to put a smile on my face for a long time. In a way, visiting Latvia is a confirmation that believing in choral music and its importance is not completely ludicrous, but even a reasonable and valuable pursuit.