Music in Latvia

During the spring of 2008, the Latvian National Opera hosted some very distinguished musical guests: the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. During a pre-concert press conference, Maestro Rattle said that he was honestly impressed by how musically knowledgeable Latvian audiences were, but even more so, he expressed amazement at the fact that such a small country (with a population of only about two and a half million) had produced so many world-class musicians. How could such an impressive musical culture be explained?

Indeed, Latvia is renowned worldwide for its choral singing traditions. When the country regained its independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the events that took place were deemed “the Singing Revolution”. But how can one explain the huge success of professional Latvian musicians in opera houses and concert halls all around the globe?

The answer probably lies in one of the very few positive inheritances from the soviet times. It is the commitment to music education as an integral part of everyday life of Latvian children. If the seeds are sown and widespread very early, then the fruits that come later are rich. This will be further explained in the section in this article concerning music education.

Latvia’s cultural heritage and self-awareness has been defined and documented for many centuries by its folksongs, which have been collected in numbers of several hundred thousands. Latvian folksongs have expressed the peoples’ life cycles, their relationships with nature, feasts and rituals, and elements of everyday life. Looking into the realm of Latvian folksong is indeed research into Latvian history, and the natural, organic means of self-expression through singing has shaped the Latvian sense of self-identity and self-affirmation. In the 19th century, this tradition was “educated” and refined through professional musicians’ choral arrangements of folksongs, and the folk tradition began to achieve an artistic musical status that could bring together hundreds and thousands of Latvian singers from all over the countryside, through published arrangements for choirs that all could learn and come together to perform. Thus the concept of the Nationwide Song Celebration was born, with the first such festival in 1873. Ultimately, after 50 years of soviet occupation, it was the self-identity that Latvians felt through their cultural heritage and singing tradition that sparked the events that led to the regaining of their independence in 1991. It was the “Singing Revolution!” This will be explored further in this article.

Latvia has also become an attractive venue for major visiting artists and musical groups from all over the world, in every musical style, from early to contemporary classical music, as well as jazz and rock music, because there are so many high-profile music festivals. Latvia is now anything but provincial. In fact, since the iron curtain came down, Latvia has become remarkably cosmopolitan. The author of this publication, an American-born musician of Latvian descent, decided to move to live in Latvia because of the vibrant musical and cultural life. And because of this exciting cultural life, Latvia (especially Rīga, the capital city) has become a major destination for “music tourists”. If a visitor’s time is limited, then the largest problem might be deciding on any given evening where to go, to the opera, to an orchestra concert, a choir concert, a theatre, a jazz club? A few years ago, during a meeting of European foreign ministers in Rīga, the dignitaries attended a performance at the Latvian National Opera. Afterwards, Germany’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that in comparison to what he had just witnessed, he felt that Berlin was provincial! Let us examine in more detail what is significant in the musical life of Latvia.

Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration

Before examining the world of professional art music, the phenomenon of the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration should be looked at, because this is a grass-roots movement that literally pervades all of Latvian society, engaging huge numbers of people from all walks of life, from the largest cities to the smallest rural villages. Its uniqueness is recognized to be a national treasure by UNESCO, and indeed, foreign tourists are amazed by the phenomenon. The Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration is an event that is held once every five years, but at the same time, it is a process that is continuous. The last festival took place in July 2013, and it brought more than 40 000 singers, instrumental musicians, and dancers to the capital city, and audiences, both live and via radio and television, spanned the entire nation.

The first Latvian Nationwide Song Celebration took place in 1873, having been preceded by smaller regional festivals. It is not insignificant that the first song celebration were an important component of the “national awakening”, a process of national self-awareness that gradually led to Latvia’s independence, proclaimed in 1918. Indeed, the preservation of these song festivals played a major role in the preservation of Latvian culture and self-awareness during the difficult years of soviet oppression. The song festival of 2008 was the 24th such event, and the longevity of the festivals and the mass participation in them make them unique in the world. Each festival presents many concerts and dance events, large and small, but the climax is the closing combined choir concert, in which the massed choir can include as many as 20,000 singers! What is truly amazing is that such a huge mass can perform with such disciplined precision, but that is the result of the process that spans five years of preparation time. Dancers and orchestral musicians are an integral part of this closing concert. The total number of participants in the festival - choristers, instrumental musicians, and dancers - is close to 40,000.

The next national song festival will take place in 2018; however, every five years there is an equally impressive song festival for young performers - singers and dancers from Latvia’s primary and secondary schools. At these festivals, the number of participants can also reach approximately 30,000 (including the dancers), and the combined choir consists of about 15,000 singers. The professional level of performance quality given by such youngsters is impressive; the sincere energy that young folks radiate through their singing and dancing is something that is truly moving.

Additional information about the Song and Dance Celebration by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.

Music Education

Before exploring the professional musical life of Latvia, a brief further look at music education is appropriate, because without music education, there could be no professional musical life!

Formerly, the Soviet Union spared no expense investing in the education of children, beginning at a very early age and continuing to early adulthood, in sports and in the arts, because success in these areas could be shown as propaganda to prove to the western world that the soviet system is superior. Although prior to World War II Latvia already had a very strong musical (and cultural) tradition, the system of Latvian music schools was strengthened and supported under soviet rule. Nowadays, many Latvian families are still so accustomed to sending their children to music schools at the end of their regular school day, it seems natural that from an early age children not only sing and play musical instruments, participating in choirs, bands, and orchestras, but they also receive training in solfeggio, music theory, and music literature, and this is an important component that is lacking in music education in most western European countries. This process in Latvia is so second nature, not unlike American children playing baseball or Brazilian children playing football (soccer), that a large number of exceptional musical talents emerge as the children come of age, and those who do not choose a musical career path continue to sing or play in amateur groups (a significant part of Latvian everyday life) and make up those intelligent and appreciative audiences at professional concerts. Venezuela has experienced something similar with children playing in symphony orchestras.

As a result, Latvia can be proud that several of their opera singers have become stars in great demand in the world’s leading opera houses. Their conductors, instrumental soloists, chamber ensembles, and choirs have had enormous success abroad. Unfortunately, this usually means that the best and brightest musicians leave their native Latvia, but their faithfulness to their homeland guarantees that they often return and contribute significantly to the musical life of Latvia, side by side with younger, emerging new talents.

The first stage of development for young Latvian musicians takes place at more than 100 music schools, which pupils attend after their regular classes at general education schools. Their music curriculum is comprehensive from the outset, with private lessons and ensemble work complemented by the study of solfeggio, music theory, and music literature. The second stage is at the high school level, and there are ten specialized music high schools that offer a high level of instruction in all musical disciplines in parallel with general education. This includes such areas as vocal and instrumental performance, conducting, composition and music theory, and jazz performance. The highest level for performers, composers, and theoreticians is to be found at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy, although musical pedagogy and related fields can also be studied at other institutions of higher learning. Various competitions and festivals offer opportunities for young musicians to “test the waters” at every age level. An annual chamber music competition and festival brings young children from many foreign countries to Latvia to play alongside Latvian youngsters, and at the highest level, the prestigious Jāzeps Vītols Piano and Vocalist Competition tests students at the conservatory/university level. Many students take advantage of opportunities to study abroad through scholarship programs such as Erasmus, and every year more and more foreign exchange students are coming to study in Latvia.

JĀZEPS VĪTOLS Additional information about Composer Jāzeps Vītols by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.

Music Festivals

Throughout the year there are countless concerts and performances in Latvia, but a surprising aspect in the musical life of the country is the large number of music festivals and the bright star performers that these festivals attract. Some of the most important ones will be briefly described here.

During the summer, the Early Music Festival brings together ensembles from abroad along with local groups, such as the “Schola Cantorum Riga” and “Ludus”. Performances of early music, from chamber music to opera, take place in Rīga and other locations in the countryside, most notably at the grand Rundāle palace, a splendid example of Baroque architecture. To witness a performance of a Baroque opera in authentic costumes in such a setting is like a trip back in time!

The Sacred Music Festival, which takes place each year in August, features concerts by leading Latvian professional choirs (especially the State Academic Choir “Latvija”) and orchestral ensembles. The programmes present works from the classic repertoire, as well as new works by prominent contemporary composers. In 2008 the honoured guest composer was Sofia Gubaidulina.

The summer months are rich in jazz and rock music as well. Each year, the coastal town Saulkrasti hosts the Saulkrasti Jazz Festival. Distinguished jazz artists from the USA, Canada, and many countries in Europe, as well as Latvia’s leading jazz professionals, teach master classes to young aspiring jazz musicians during the day, and in the evenings there are open-air concerts featuring both student groups and performances by the masters themselves. Another jazz festival takes place in Rīga, “Rīgas ritmi” (Rīga’s Rhythms). This is a showcase for famous jazz artists from abroad along with local talents. An annual competition for young jazz artists is the Sony Jazz Stage, where the participants are both local and international, mostly from the Baltic countries.

Another summer tradition is a competition and festival Liepājas dzintars for rock groups, taking place in the city of Liepāja, on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Many new rock bands have launched their careers there, reaching a wide audience for the first time.

Each fall, there are several festivals that take place in Rīga. The new music festival Arena usually features a prominent guest composer. In 2007, the guest composer was Magnus Lindberg.  In 2008, Heinz Holliger, the world famous Swiss oboist, composer, and conductor, was the featured guest, conducting the chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga. This festival presents a series of concerts, including chamber music, symphonic music, choral music, and electronic music, and several world premieres by Latvian composers are given. It is a wonderful opportunity especially for younger generation composers to challenge themselves and their audiences with new works. The performers are leading professional Latvian musicians.

The Autumn Chamber Music Festival usually runs in parallel with the festival Arena, and it also presents leading local chamber groups as well as guest artists. In 2008, the featured group was the Seattle Chamber Players, offering a concert of works by American composers, as well as works by Latvian composers Pēteris Vasks and Imants Mežaraups. Latvian performers gave concerts of classical music and jazz, and the Latvian Radio Choir, under the direction of Kaspars Putniņš, presented a concert “Homage to Messiaen”. Another featured guest artist was the American diva Tichina Vaughn, who sang a program of American, Italian, German, and Latvian vocal repertoire.

Another festival, one that takes place outside of Rīga, is Rudens mūzika (“Autumn Music”). This is one of the more active festivals in the region Vidzeme, northeast of Rīga, offering a range of concerts of music of many genres.
During the concert season that runs from the autumn to the spring, there are several other festivals worthy of note. A Bach Festival is organized each year in Rīga by Aina Kalnciema, who is Latvia’s most prominent harpsichordist. She performs together with Latvian and foreign artists who are specialists in the Baroque repertoire. The Introvert Music Festival presents performances, often world premieres, of works by contemporary Latvian composers that are usually of a meditative nature. Artis Sīmanis, the founding leader of the Rīga Saxophone Quartet (and rector of the Latvian Music Academy), organizes a festival featuring saxophones, Saxophonia in February. Distinguished guest artists from all over the world perform alongside Latvia’s best saxophonists in a series of concerts that present new academic music (including premieres and commissioned works) as well as jazz. A new tradition in Rīga is the world music festival Porta.

The International Organ Music Festival Rīgas Doms, held in the Dome Church in Rīga, features Latvian organists of various generations alongside world renowned guest artists. Another festival with the same name, “Rīgas Doms”, is the International Boys’ Choir Festival, initiated by the director of the Rīga Dome Choir School, Jānis Erenštreits. In this festival, the Rīga Dome Choir School’s internationally acclaimed boys’ choir hosts numerous boys’ choirs from all over the world.

In the realm of classical music, the largest festival that takes place outside of Rīga is the “International Piano Stars Festival” in Liepāja, organized by the chief conductor of the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, Imants Resnis. This festival presents a series of concerts and recitals, with emphasis on performances of piano concertos by prominent pianists from many countries as well as from Latvia. In 2008, one of the star performers was the Brazilian native Cristina Ortiz. Recently this festival has branched out from classical music to include jazz.

Occasionally, there is an international festival that in its turn comes to Latvia. Such an event in October of 2008 was the “Tenso Days”. Tenso is the European Association of Professional Choirs, and the Latvian Radio Choir hosted the Netherlands Chamber Choir, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Chamber Choir RIAS from Berlin in a series of three concerts in Rīga. In the first of these, Heinz Holliger (who was the featured guest artist at the Arena festival) conducted his own works. The second concert offered the world premieres of choral works by the young Latvian composers Santa Ratniece and Gundega Smite. The third concert offered a variety of contemporary works by European composers. This was an event that generated a very great level of interest and enthusiasm in an environment in which choral music is so highly esteemed.

The international folklore festival Baltica, which rotates annually among the three Baltic nations, has brought together folklore ensembles from all over the world. In 1988 it was a key part of the national re-awakening that led to the “singing revolution” and the restoration of Latvian independence.

Summer opera festivals take place each year; they are described under the section OPERA later in this article. The chamber orchestra KREMERata Baltica also holds a festival of its own each year, usually presenting interesting programmes in venues such as the town of Sigulda’s Baltais flīģelis (“the White Grand Piano”, a concert hall in Sigulda), and, of course, in Rīga. Rīga hosts an a festival of unusual contemporary music and film, Skaņu mežs (“Sound Forest”) for lovers of non-traditional music and cinema.


Latvian composers have been highly successful at home and abroad, receiving numerous prizes and commissions. Among the “old guard”, probably the most famous and most frequently performed Latvian composer is Pēteris Vasks, winner of the 2004 Cannes Classical Award; he has received commissions and performances worldwide, collaborating with the best symphony orchestras, soloists, and ballet companies throughout Europe and the USA. He and his colleagues, such as Pēteris Plakidis, Romualds Kalsons, Juris Karlsons and others, have given a significant contribution to contemporary Latvian music, and their music has been performed and recorded internationally. Karlsons received the 2008 Music Grand Prix in Latvia for composition, in recognition of his work for traditional folk singer and symphony orchestra, “Sunset Glow” (Vakara blāzma). Plakidis is a mainstay in Latvian contemporary music, often stylizing past musical traditions with a sense of contemporary irony. Kalsons, a longtime Head of the Composition Department at the Latvian Music Academy, has achieved great success with his symphonic works, as the recording of his Violin Concerto will attest, and he has been mentor (along with his aforementioned colleagues) to several generations of younger composers.

Especially impressive, however, is the successful activity shown by the younger generation of composers. Santa Ratniece has been awarded prizes and commissions internationally; her work Hirondelles de Coeur, premiered in 2007 by the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga, was nominated for the Latvian Music Grand Prix. Mārtiņš Viļums won top honours at the prestigious ROSTRUM competition in Paris in 2005, one of the highest achievements by a Latvian composer, for his work Le temps scintille. Anitra Tumševica was the winner of an opera composition competition in Bode, Norway, and as a result, she has a commission to complete a chamber opera that is now in progress. Ēriks Ešenvalds had a new opera premiered in Rīga, “The Fruit Tree is Joseph”, based on a biblical theme, and it earned the Latvian Music Grand Prix for the best new production in 2007. Significant is this work’s original scoring - the State Academic Choir Latvija took over the role usually entrusted to the orchestra (Ešenvalds says that the choir is like an orchestra), and in the instrumental chamber ensemble, the post-modern folk ensemble Altera Veritas played a key role. Gustavs Fridrihsons, a student of Heinz Holliger, had a symphonic work premiered during the Arena festival in October of 2008. Andris Dzenītis is currently working on a new opera that will be premiered by the Latvian National Opera. Anita Mieze has won prizes in international competitions in 2008, resulting in performances of her symphonic and chamber music in France and Switzerland. And significantly, the Latvian Composers’ Union is now a full-fledged member of the ISCM (the International Society for Contemporary Music) and participates in its international conferences and festivals. There are also Latvian composers who work in crossover and non-traditional genres. An example of this is Raimonds Tiguls, who represents electronic and ambient music. The chairman of the Latvian Composers’ Union, Uģis Prauliņš, also combines traditional classical elements with modern (rock and popular) stylistic tendencies to form a very appealing synthesis of musical influences.

Works by Latvian composers are performed frequently in their native land, but increasingly, their music can be heard in concert venues internationally. However, it must be noted that composers from abroad have taken note of the fact that Latvian performers can give them tremendously qualitative performance opportunities. For example, composers of such stature as Krzysztof Penderecki, Magnus Lindberg, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steve Reich, and others have come to Rīga to participate in performances of their works. The acclaimed Latvian youth choir Kamēr, which has won the highest prizes in international competitions, gave a concert in July 2008 in which 17 composers from 17 different countries had world premieres of commissioned choral works! The theme of this project was a celebration of the sun.


Additional information about composer Pēteris Vasks by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.


Additional information about „Melanholiskais valsis” by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.

Symphonic Music

The mainstay of Latvian symphonic music is the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, which dates back to 1926. This orchestra, in its long history, has been under the leadership of many distinguished conductors, such as Leonīds Vīgners, Vassily Sinaisky, Pauls Megi, and Terje Mikkelsen. Karel Mark Chichon, a frequent guest conductor, will take over the leadership of the orchestra in the next concert season. The LNSO gives regular subscription concerts at the Great Guild concert hall in the centre of Old Rīga, and last year they earned special recognition for their emphasis on symphonic music by Latvian composers. They offer a series of concerts for children and families with an educational leaning, and distinguished guest conductors and soloists are often contributors to an exciting calendar of concerts.

The Sinfonietta Rīga was founded approximately a year and a half ago; it is a chamber orchestra that consists almost entirely of young musicians who are especially eager to perform contemporary works, and that is the emphasis of their concert programmes. Their conductor, Normunds Šnē, is a champion of new music, and occasionally a soloist on his instrument, the oboe.

Besides the Latvian National Opera orchestra, another professional symphony orchestra resides in the coastal city of Liepāja. As was mentioned earlier, this orchestra participates in the annual International Piano Stars Festival, and performs a rich season of concerts.

An annual event has evolved that combines all of these orchestras in a single concert, the Grand Symphonic Music Concert. Each orchestra performs its own programme, which usually includes a world premiere by a Latvian composer. In 2007 it was Ēriks Ešenvalds, and in 2008 a work by Kristaps Pētersons will be given. In this context, an unusual work was premiered recently by pianist and composer Kārlis Lācis together with the LNSO. Lacis is a crossover musician who combines jazz and popular styles with classical music.
An unusual orchestra that spends more time touring abroad than it performs in Latvia is the KREMERata Baltica, founded and directed by the world-famous violinist from Rīga, Gidon Kremer. It is primarily a string chamber orchestra consisting of the best young string players from all three Baltic countries, although it does include other instrumentalists besides string players on an irregular basis, depending on the demands of the works performed. This group is the Baltic States’ ambassador to the world, playing in the world’s best concert halls and music festivals. Its programmes are frequently unusual in content. The group won a Grammy Award in 2002 for the albumAfter Mozart.

Another ensemble worthy of note is the symphonic wind orchestra “Rīga”, currently under the leadership of the young and talented conductor Andris Poga. This group performs in many venues and has released recordings of music in many styles, ranging from classical to ceremonial marches to jazz to arrangements of popular tunes. Founded in 1972, it thrived in the 1990’s under the conductor Jānis Puriņš, who is Head of the Department of Wind Instruments and Percussion at the Latvian Music Academy, and Andris Poga, a winner of the Latvian Music Grand Prix, was his former student.

Opera and Ballet

Strong traditions in opera and ballet in Rīga date back to the time when Richard Wagner conducted the opera in the Rīga City Theatre, precursor to the current Latvian National Opera, along with its ballet troupe, which was founded in 1918. While most of the activity is focused in the beautiful Latvian National Opera house, performances are regularly given in other locations in Latvia and during tours abroad. Summer open-air performances in striking locations such as the medieval castle ruins in Cēsis and Bauska are particularly impressive.

The regular season for the opera and ballet typically runs from September to the end of May. However, for two weeks in June, the Rīga Opera Festival showcases the season’s new productions as well as repeats of previously successful repertoire. In the course of a season, the LNO gives approximately 200 performances. In addition, special summer performances are given at the height of the tourist season in August in Rīga and other Latvian cities and towns, so that visitors have ample opportunity to enjoy the opera in Latvia.

The LNO gives performances abroad and participates in prestigious foreign opera festivals. They have received high critical acclaim from opera critics in many countries in leading newspapers and opera magazines. The LNO has 28 soloists, 62 chorus members, 105 orchestra musicians, and 70 ballet dancers.

Many Latvian opera soloists have achieved great international acclaim and have performed at the world’s greatest opera houses under world-famous conductors. A few who have been particularly successful are Inese Galante, Inga Kalna, Elīna Garanča, Egils Siliņš, Aleksandrs Antoņenko and Maija Kovaļevska.

In addition to standard repertory - Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner - performances of operas by Latvian composers are given each year. Ēriks Ešenvalds successful opus “The Fruit Tree is Joseph” was mentioned earlier; Jānis Lūsēns has also enjoyed successful productions of his children’s operas, Putnu opera (“The Birds’ Opera”) and Leļļu opera (“The Puppet Opera”). And it must be mentioned that many operas from the standard repertory are frequently given new staging with modern direction, scenery, and lighting design.

The Ballet Company of the LNO has been world-renowned for its soloists Michael Barishnikov, Aleksandr Godunov, Māris Liepa, and many others. Current stars, who have been awarded the Latvian Music Grand Prix, are Jūlija Gurviča and Aleksejs Avečkins. While the repertoire includes many old favorites, modern productions are also given. Special projects have now become part of the Ballet Company’s repertoire, for example, The Yellow Tango, with modern choreography set to music by Astor Piazzola, and “The Silver Veil” by Latvian composer Juris Karlsons, an impressive symbolic drama. The LNO Ballet Company is highly successful in presenting a combination of the best traditions of world ballet and the unique national character.

Latvia's Choirs

Music historian Dr. Ilma Grauzdiņa writes:

Most of the new national schools of composition emerging in the 19th century quickly developed their national operas, ballets and orchestral music masterpieces, and deemed choral music to be a less important, secondary genre. The development of choral music in Latvia, however, became the province of its most outstanding composers, conductors and community leaders. As a result, choral music became the leading genre of Latvian professional music during its first stages of development, and the involvement of professional composers in choir conducting - a respected and socially important occupation. This unusual situation in Latvia had far-reaching effects.

One result was the development of many very good and several truly outstanding choirs from the multitude of amateur choirs existing in independent Latvia in the 1920s and 1930s. The Reiters' Choir, led by Teodors Reiters, made ten major concert tours during these two decades and brought Latvian choirs fame and recognition outside Latvia. (From The Sound of Music in Latvia, Latvian Institute, 2003.)

This tradition is very strong nowadays. Latvia’s leading professional choirs, the Latvian Radio Choir under conductors Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš, and the State Academic Choir Latvija under Māris Sirmais, are recognized among the best in the world. They frequently perform world premieres of the most challenging modern scores by Latvian and international composers.  The youth chamber choir Kamēr, also conducted by Māris Sirmais, has won top prizes at numerous international competitions worldwide. In 2006, after Kamēr decisively won first prize in all three categories at the World Choir Olympics, Latvia earned the right to host this event in 2014.

For many years the chamber choir Ave Sol, under legendary conductor Imants Kokars, was one of the world’s best, although other outstanding mixed, women’s, and men’s choirs flourished during soviet times. Nowadays, Latvia’s best choirs often collaborate with other choirs and orchestras throughout Europe and elsewhere. The aforementioned professional choir association Tenso was co-founded by the Latvian Radio Choir in collaboration with the leading professional choirs in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, and Denmark. Leading Latvian conductors are often called upon as guests in many foreign countries.

Sacred Music

Sacred music in churches is an integral part of the musical life throughout Latvia. It is hard to imagine a church service on Sunday without performances by a choir, soloists, or the organist. Concerts of sacred music take place year-round, and a highlight is the previously mentioned Sacred Music Festival in Rīga during the month of August.

Once again, to quote Dr. Ilma Grauzdiņa:

In its essence almost every genre of music provides a spiritual experience that can bring a sense of equilibrium into our hectic world. This is true most of all for sacred music, for music performed in the church, particularly organ music and sacred vocal-instrumental works - masses, passions, requiems and oratorios.

At the moment Latvia has around 250 churches with functioning organs. There are four-manual instruments in the Dome Church in Rīga, and in the Holy Trinity Church and St.Anne's Church in Liepāja. Congregations with professional organists are developing their musical life and becoming more and more active: choirs and youth ensembles, concerts and even festivals are being organized. This is so not only in Rīga (in St.Peter's, St.John's and St.Gertrude's, in the Anglican Church, the Church of Jesus and other churches), but also in Liepāja, Jelgava, Cēsis and many other towns.

The principal centre for organ and sacred music performance in Latvia, however, is the Dome Church in Rīga. The International Organ Music Festival Rīgas Doms has taken place here 15 times. Latvian organists of various generations and world-renowned guest artists have performed a wealth of organ music at these festivals, including such major works as Verdi's Requiem, Schnittke's Requiem and Mendelssohn's Te Deum. Another festival, the International Boys' Choir FestivalRīgas Doms, initiated by the Director of the Rīga Dome Choir School Jānis Erenštreits, has always been very popular. Every autumn the State Choir Latvijaand its conductor Māris Sirmais present a rich and diverse programme as part of the Sacred Music Festival. Just as important is the contribution to this event of the Latvian Radio Choir and its conductors Sigvards Kļava and Kaspars Putniņš. The sacred works of Latvian composers Rihards Dubra, Maija Einfelde, Romualds Jermaks, Arturs Maskats and Pēteris Vasks are often performed at concerts in the Dome Church and elsewhere. Every year a Bach Week is held in honour of the great baroque master. In the second half of the 1990s, the St.John Passion, theSt.Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor were performed at these Bach music festivals. Latvian organists have in their turn realised several other large projects: Jevgenija Liscina in a concert series presenting all of Bach's organ works, Vita Kalnciema in a concert series performing the classics of Latvian organ music, and Ligita Sneibe with a concert series called Portraits of Latvian Composers. Regular organ music concerts take place in the Dome Church all year long at least two or three times a week. (From The Sound of Music in Latvia, Latvian Institute, 2003.)

Because the organ in the Dome Church is one of the most famous in all of Europe (it was the largest of its kind when it was built) and is a favorite instrument among leading professional concert organists from all over the world, it is hard to imagine a visit to Rīga without attending a concert at the Dome Church. During soviet times, when religion was suppressed, this edifice was officially called the “Dome Concert Hall”. Today it is the home of an active Lutheran congregation that holds regular church services that are open to the public. Important state events are sometimes held there, for example, an ecumenical service attended by local and foreign dignitaries (but also open to the general public) on November 18, the Latvian Proclamation of Independence Day.

Chamber Music

A great variety of chamber music representing many musical styles from many time periods can be heard throughout Latvia all year round. On one end of the spectrum, young children perform chamber music in schools, and every spring there is a Children’s Chamber Music Competition and Festival that brings together young ensembles from all over Latvia and several neighboring foreign countries. Then there is chamber music played by older pupils and students at the Latvian Music Academy - regular recitals are part of their training process, and there are also annual competitions at these age levels.

In the professional musical world, chamber music is part and parcel of several of the festivals described earlier, and every week there are several concerts to choose from featuring Latvia’s most distinguished musicians as well as international guests. There are many concert venues. Almost every Latvian city and town has a cultural centre and/or a music school with an auditorium for concert events.

In Rīga, the traditional location for chamber music concerts has been Wagner Hall, where the famous composer Richard Wagner worked for a brief time period directing the Rīga City Theatre (predecessor of the Latvian National Opera). However, there are several other fine concert halls for the enjoyment of chamber music, including the Blackhead’s Hall (reconstructed in the 1990’s), the Small Guild Hall (across the street from the Great Guild, home of the LNSO), the Rīga Latvian Society’s concert halls, the Ave Sol concert hall (which is also a church), the large hall of the Latvian Academy of Music, and several other locations. Occasionally, unusual venues are chosen for unusual events, such as museums or event a vacant space at a local furniture factory and shop.

Soloists and chamber ensemble musicians that have been successful both at home and abroad are too numerous to mention. Perhaps the highest international honors were achieved by the young violinist Baiba Skride, who was a prizewinner in prestigious competitions, such as the Paganini Competition in Genoa (1998) and first prize at the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels (2001). The young pianist Vestards Šimkus has been in great demand in concert halls all over Europe, and he created a sensation in Great Britain by stepping in at the last minute to replace an ailing star performer to play a Brahms piano concerto with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, receiving long ovations and the highest praise from music critics.

The make-up of Latvian chamber ensembles is varied and ranges from the traditional to the not so traditional. Many ensembles come together for a particular project or concert programme, and often this is in order to perform premieres of new works by Latvian composers. A few ensembles that have been in existence for quite a while include two legendary piano duets, Nora Novika and Rafi Haradzanjans, and Antra and Normunds Vīksne. The Rīga Saxophone Quartet has been a leader that has inspired the creation of several younger quartets. Its leader, Artis Sīmanis, is the father of classical saxophone performance in Latvia, and mentor to many already internationally successful young saxophonists.

A very unusual ensemble is Altera veritas, a quartet consisting of a flutist (who plays an arsenal of instruments, from Irish penny whistle to recorder to flute to bass flute), an accordionist, and two players of the Latvian folk string instrument kokle (which also exists in various sizes and ranges). The kokle is a plucked instrument, similar to a psaltery or zither, with a timbre that reminds one of an Irish harp. The members ofAltera veritas have turned to young composers, asking for new works written especially for them, and this turned out to be a difficult but amazingly successful path toward solving their repertoire problem. The artistic quality of their performances attracted more and more attention among composers of older generations as well as the younger ones, and before long, they acquired a large array of wonderfully diverse and highly creative new compositions written especially for this ensemble. Each instrument was used with new, extended playing techniques, and their unique timbres ensured that a highly unusual new sound was being formed on the academic contemporary music stage. Their success led to international travel and prizes at competitions. (At one competition in Switzerland, for example, the jury did not know what to make of them in the context of traditional string quartets, piano trios, etc., so a new prize had to be created solely for them!) Approaching their five-year anniversary they had already won the most prestigious music award in Latvia, the Latvian Music Grand Prix. They expanded their horizons by commissioning works in collaboration with other ensembles, such as the clarinet quartet Quattro differente and the early music group Sansara, which inevitably resulted in even more interesting timbral combinations and stylistic possibilities.

While many Latvian chamber ensembles pay particular attention to contemporary music, especially by Latvian composers, early music is also thriving in Latvia. While not long ago early music was not at all well established, the 1980’s and 1990’s saw the emergence of the first early music groups - Canto, the chamber choir Sacrum, and the instrumental ensemble Ludus. In 1993 Māris Kupčs founded the baroque orchestraCollegium Musicum Rigense, taking its name from an ensemble that existed in Rīga around 1690. In the same year, Guntars Prānis founded the vocal group Schola Cantorum Riga, which specializes in the performance of Gregorian chant and other medieval vocal sacred music.

Early music has ideal venues in and outside of Rīga. Rīga’s churches date as far back as the 13th century, and castle ruins throughout the countryside provide a dramatically impressive environment for early music concerts. (The performance of opera in such settings has already been mentioned.) The most beautiful such setting is the Rundāle Palace, a highly ornate baroque building dating from the 1730’s and recently renovated to its original splendor. The courtyard and expansive gardens surrounding it are ideal for summer performances of chamber music and opera.

While on the topic of early music, the name Andris Veismanis must be mentioned. He is a conductor and former choirmaster at the Latvian National Opera, and one of Latvia’s leading experts in early music. He introduced Handel’s baroque opera Alcina to the LNO’s repertoire, and this has gained great acclaim both at home and abroad (when the LNO took their production on international tours, most recently in Spain). The use of period instruments and baroque vocal techniques gives this production genuine authenticity, and yet its stage direction lends it a contemporary and lively feeling.

Jazz and Popular Music

While the jazz tradition in Latvia dates back to pre-World War II, it has seen a particular surge in interest during the last few years, owing in part to the recent introduction of jazz education in Latvia’s music schools. Alongside seasoned veteran jazz artists, there is a growing new generation of jazz talents. Internationally renowned jazz musicians not only come to Latvia to perform in concerts and clubs, they also give master classes. The aforementioned festivals (The Saulkrasti Jazz Festival, Rīga’s Rhythms, The Sony Jazz Stage) are important venues for many established stars and emerging young talents.

Popular music can be heard almost anywhere in Latvia throughout the year. It has also seen a rising influence in the programming of the National Song and Dance Festivals, in which there is now a separate concert for popular music in which the audience is invited to sing along.

One cannot mention popular music in Latvia without mentioning the famous composer and pianist Raimonds Pauls. His songs have enjoyed unparalleled popularity in Latvia and abroad for many, many years. Some of his songs are almost like folklore, as there is hardly a soul in Latvia who is not familiar with them.

A pioneer in Latvian rock music who is also of the older generation is composer Imants Kalniņš. His style is idiosyncratic and unique, and perhaps a couple of generations grew up with his music. During soviet times he took risks in encoding patriotic Latvian themes into his songs.

There are many rock bands in Latvia, and new ones appear quite frequently. A popular venue in which rising new stars in rock music come on the scene is the annual summer rock festival Liepājas dzintars in the western port city of Liepāja.

Two groups that have enjoyed enormous success at home and abroad are Prāta vētra(“Brainstorm”), who received the first ever MTV Europe Music Award for the Best Baltic Act in 2006, and the a cappella male vocal group “Cosmos”. Many solo vocalists have also come into the spotlight. Among the most successful are Marija Naumova (or Marie N), who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2002, and Intars Busulis, who is equally comfortable in styles ranging from jazz to rock.

A recent trend that has become increasingly popular in Latvia is staged musical theatre. Among recent productions are the very popular shows “The Sound of Music”, “West Side Story”, and Les Miserables. Each concert season is likely to see yet a new production.

Here it might be appropriate to again mention that Latvia has many composers working in crossover styles, such as Raimonds Tiguls and his ambient electronic music. In a different cultural direction, one with great appeal to young audiences, Latvia is especially well represented by the DJ Bogdan Taran (house, electronica), voted Latvia’s best DJ in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008, and awarded for his promotion of dance culture. He has appeared internationally with the world’s top DJ’s.


Additional information about composer Imants Kalniņš by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.


Additional information about composer Raimonds Pauls by the Latvian Cultural Canon here.

Traditional (Folk) Music

Once again, it is most appropriate to quote Dr. Ilma Grauzdiņa:

It is fitting and not at all surprising that the unique collection of Latvian folk songsLatvju dainas compiled by Krišjānis Barons opens with a section on songs and singing. The 1,052 quatrains in this section describe singing in every situation in life, and song as an integral part of life. A recurrent theme in these texts is pride in a good singing voice and a good knowledge of songs, a testimony to the fact that, for Latvians, songs have been a joy and a necessity for centuries.

It was because Latvians were denied the opportunity of developing a national, professional culture until the end of the 19th century, that they expressed their creativity so powerfully in folklore. As a result there are over 2.8 million units of folklore material in the Latvian Folklore Archives in Rīga, including over a million folk song texts and almost 30,000 melodies.

Today these songs are still in constant use - sung both in unison and also as arrangements. They are sung at various private and public social gatherings, performed by choirs and taught at school.

Moreover, as a result of the folklore movement that began at the end of the 1970s and blossomed during the 1980s, new life has been instilled into the most ancient layers of Latvian folklore, in which the music is inseparable from the mythical view of the world, from ancient rituals, and indeed from life itself. In many European countries these ancient folk music traditions have practically vanished from social life. In Latvia, on the other hand, many ethnographic ensembles and folklore groups have inherited these ancient singing traditions directly from folk singers, or learned from descriptions notated in the relatively recent past.

A knowledge and appreciation of the older layers of folklore has brought with it changes in the way folklore is presented. Rather than staging concert-style performances that are difficult to reconcile with ancient folk traditions, folklore ensembles now gather together in groups for more informal singing and organise events celebrating various traditional festivities. Conditions that are as authentic as possible are chosen for these gatherings - the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, the Hill of Dainas sculpture park in Turaida, and various town squares (Dome Square in Rīga, for instance, at markets celebrating Herb Day in midsummer andMiķeļi in autumn). It is also becoming customary to include audience participation in the singing, dancing and game-dances presented at these events. This is the practice of folklore ensembles Skandinieki and Budēļi in Rīga, Senleja in Sigulda, the dance group Dandari and many other groups. From the 1980s onwards, the role of the leaders of Skandinieki, Helmi and Dainis Stalts, has been particularly important; their activity, their thirst for authenticity and their skill are an inspiration to many other groups.

Baltica, the largest international folklore festival in the Baltic region is regularly held every year in one of the Baltic States - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia [on a rotating basis]. The importance of this festival from a national, emotional, informative and, yes, even a political point of view cannot be overestimated.

While the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum is an ideal place for a tourist so see and hear impressions of traditional Latvian folk art, folk traditions are often to be seen in urban Rīga and in other locations throughout the country. Many fine recordings of traditional music are available for purchase in shops.

Another aspect in Latvian music, a spin-off from folk music, is what can be called post-folk music, tying into the realm of world music and elements of rock music. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the group Iļģi, founded in 1981. They play a range of folk instruments together with modern instruments, mixing rhythms and timbral colours that combine rock music with ancient folk elements. The result is unique and quite refreshing.

There are many other ensembles throughout Latvia that perform folk music from the most authentic ancient practices to syntheses with modern tendencies. There are folk music and dance festivals that engage many participants. The number of folk ensembles in Latvia is around 200. After all, Latvia’s cultural identity most authentically can be traced back to the origins of ancient folklore. That is what best defines what it means to be Latvian.


Latvia is seen all around the world as a singing nation. Latvian musicians have made an impact on global musical life. Music within Latvia is vibrant, active, attractive, and a defining aspect of what Latvia really is. Visitors to this small Baltic country cannot gain an objective impression of it without attending a concert, going to the opera, checking out a jazz club, witnessing at least part of a music festival, or at least buying a recording of Latvian music. The full range of possible musical interests can be satisfied in Latvia. One only needs to explore the possibilities!

© Text: Imants Mežaraups, 2008

In the Spīķeri Quarter, Nineteenth-Century Red Bricks Provide a Backdrop For Local Arts and Culture

Over the past couple of years, Rīga has jumped on the industrial-renovation bandwagon too, and has begun to revitalize its red-brick buildings called spīķeri (pronounced “spee-kyeri”), a term derived from the German word for storehouse, Speicher. To date, five of the old warehouses have been fully renovated, and are now home to some of the hottest cultural venues in town, including the innovative Doll Art Museum, a bar and performance space at Dirty Deal Cafe, a gallery for the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum, and a marvellously acoustic concert hall for the chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga.

The renovation of former industrial districts and their transformation into urban centres for the arts and culture has become a major trend in cities all over the globe. In the Prenzlauerberg section of east Berlin, the nineteenth-century Schultheiss Brewery has been reborn as the KulturBrauerai, or Culture Brewery, and now hosts a variety of offices, stores, restaurants, and clubs. The Meatpacking District of New York, an historic area of slaughterhouses and packing plants, was saved from urban blight to become one of Manhattan’s most fashionable neighbourhoods; it is now home to numerous fine restaurants, hip nightclubs, stylish boutiques, and luxury hotels. And closer to home, the Rotermann Quarter in Tallinn, a nineteenth-century complex of factories, mills, workshops, and markets, has been given a second life as a modern district that includes a multiplex, a museum, a department store, and several commercial and residential buildings.

Over the past couple of years, Rīga has jumped on the industrial-renovation bandwagon too, and has begun to revitalize its red-brick buildings called spīķeri (pronounced “spee-kyeri”), a term derived from the German word for storehouse, Speicher. Located near the Central Market, on the banks of the Daugava River, the Spīķeri Quarter consists of a dozen two- and three-storey brick buildings that served as warehouses during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, first for the port, then the railroad, and finally the nearby market. To date, five of the old warehouses have been fully renovated, and are now home to some of the hottest cultural venues in town, including the innovative Doll Art Museum, a bar and performance space at Dirty Deal Cafe, a gallery for the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum, and a marvellously acoustic concert hall for the chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga.

An Eclectic History

The warehouses were originally constructed between 1864 and 1886, when they numbered more than fifty; the thirteen surviving structures were all erected between 1879 and 1882. Though the buildings seem nearly identical, they were actually constructed by a team of architects that included the leading figures in local architecture, such as Karl Johann Felsko, Robert August Pflug, and Reinhold Schmaeling, who later became the Rīga City Architect. In a 2005 study of the quarter, architecture scholar Jānis Krastiņš writes, “Special regulations prescribed that all the buildings must have mutually corresponding facades, modelled in a similar manner and congruous with one another. The buildings were created in the so-called brick style - one of the formal trends in nineteenth-century Eclecticism, which was particularly widespread in the architecture of factories, warehouses, and other industrial-type structures.” Over time, the red-brick buildings were used to store a variety of goods, including grain, agricultural equipment, electric motors, eggs, and plywood; other buildings were employed as sales points for items like hay, oats, linseeds, and carpentry tools. Later, during the Soviet period, the area fell into disrepair, and became a blight on Rīga’s urban landscape.

A Home For Culture and Creativity

The rebirth of the Spīķeri Quarter began in 2005 and was led by Jānis and Uldis Dinne, who co-own ten of the thirteen remaining warehouses; the other three structures, as well as the spaces between the buildings and along the Daugava waterfront, are administered by the City of Rīga. “We wanted to preserve the old infrastructure as the absolute dominant element, though we of course made purely functional renovations to expand the public spaces, like installing larger windows and doors,” said Uldis Dinne at his offices on the top floor of a renovated warehouse facing Maskavas iela.

In order to complete the renovation project, the Dinnes have received funding from a European Union fund for renewing dilapidated territories. These resources will be directed toward revitalizing the waterfront, where they plan to install boat docks, construct a sunbathing beach, and build a bike path and walkway from the Old City to the Spīķeri pier. The project is therefore a collaborative effort between various entities: the family of owners, the local tenants, the City of Rīga, and the European Union, making it the quintessential international public-private partnership. If all goes according to plan, work will be completed on the quarter by December 31, 2010.

The Dinnes originally conceived of the Spīķeri Quarter as a centre for the arts and culture - a vision they have successfully implemented and certainly plan to continue. “Our goal is to provide a headquarters for culture and creative industries,” says Uldis. “This quarter is very close to the centre, but the surrounding area hasn’t been gentrified. And so culture and creativity don’t clash with the surrounding environment. They don’t feel threatened or out of place here.” The creative establishments in the neighbourhood have even united to form a tenants organization, the Rīga Spīķeri Society, where they collaborate on the marketing and promotion of various events.

The inaugural event for the Spīķeri Quarter was a documentary film festival in the summer of 2007, during which films were projected both in and outside the buildings, local bands played between screenings, and DJs and VJs performed in the tunnel to the riverfront. The festival was attended by thousands of young residents of the city, who got a chance to see the quarter for the first time. Since then, a wide range of film screenings, lectures, workshops, seminars, exhibits, concerts, theatre performances, and, of course, parties have taken place against the backdrop of red brick. “There are lots of opportunities for self-expression here,” says Jānis Dinne. “You can organize all sorts of events from morning till night, and play music at any volume. It’s a totally free atmosphere.”

The Rebirth Continues

Among the upcoming additions to the quarter are an authentic Georgian restaurant, which will open this month, and a space for the Latvian Radio Choir, in the new concert hall. Future projects currently under development include the Latvia-France Gastronomy School, a collaborative effort between local superstar chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš and his colleagues from France, and a bar devoted exclusively to Latvian beers. One of the most biggest projects is for an open square in the middle of the quarter, on the current site of the Night Market. Jānis Dinne explains: “It will be a multifunctional space where we hope to host seasonal markets and fairs, as well as fairs, performances, and events organized by different national groups, like the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Russians. It will also provide a space for art installations. The square is the central element in the quarter, because it unites all the events here.”

In February, check out a photography exhibit by Latvian artist Kaspars Podnieks, or a video installation by the British digital animation project Semiconductor, in the galleries of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum Pilot Project “Kim?” (which stands for “Kas ir maksla,” or “What is art?”), at Maskavas iela 12/1; across the pedestrian street, peruse the eclectic collection of dolls in the Doll Art Museum. At the Dirty Deal Cafe, next door, look out for several new theatre productions in the second-floor performance space, or stop by on weekend evenings to see shows by local bands or sets by popular DJs in the downstairs bar. And if the short walk along the riverfront from the Old City has given you an appetite, try a venison burger or some wild boar ham at the upscale delicatessen Desa & Co., Maskavas 4, which sells game and other fine meats. (The owner, a renowned collector of Latvian art, is also the proprietor of an enormous farm near Koknese, where he raises herds of stag, elk, fallow deer, bison, mouflon, and boar.) The elegant brasserie-cum-bookshop Meta-Kafe, at Maskavas 12/1, which has been reviewed in previous issues of Baltic Outlook, has also become a local favourite, and offers a menu of slow-food-style dishes made with fresh local ingredients—the perfect dinner prior to a performance by Sinfonietta Rīga at the Spīķeri Concert Hall, at Maskavas 4/1.

The best reason to check out the Spīķeri Quarter is because the area is still in the process of becoming. Though the warehouses were erected almost 140 years ago, they continue to assume unprecedented functions and to provide a milieu for new types of activities. Taking a walk amongst the buildings, you can literally see this process of change taking shape before your eyes: workers paint interiors, install doors and windows, and fence off construction areas, while other warehouses remain overgrown with weeds, waiting their turn to be revitalized and provide a home for culture and the creative industries. Because, to borrow the oft-quoted adage about Rīga, the Spīķeri Quarter isn’t ready yet. And that’s the key to its charm.

For more information about events in the Spīķeri Quarter, check out their website or the Rīga Spīķeri Society’s Twitter page. To arrange a guided tour, call the Spīķeri Association at + 371 67229008.

© Text : Rihards Kalniņš / Baltic Outlook

Expert Article on Latvian Musicians Achievements January 2010 (0.1 MB)PDF

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