New Classical Tracks: Enchanting, Exhilarating: Choral Works from Latviaby Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
The nation of Latvia, on the Baltic Sea, has a rich musical tradition, but in 1975, one choir discovered that there was a dearth of Christmas music for them to perform in concert, and decided to do something about it.
St. Paul, Minn. — Soon after the New York Latvian Concert Choir was founded in 1975, it began collaborating with the Latvian Lutheran Church in Yonkers, New York where they held regular concerts. The choir also performed in church services during the Christmas season. While searching for appropriate repertoire for these concerts, the choir discovered there was only one Latvian Christmas cantata.
So, for over the past 25 years, the New York Latvian Choir has commissioned over twenty Christmas cantatas. Their new recording, "Christmas Joy in Latvia," is a collection of some of these works.
Many of the words, images, and melodies on this disc draw from Latvian tradition. The cantatas are lovingly performed by the New York Latvian Choir,the Balsis Youth Choir, the New Chamber Orchestra of Riga, and conductor Andrejs Jansons. The result is a delightful fresh addition to Christmas choral literature.
Latvian composer Vilnis Salaks believes it's important that each composer look for their own unique way to touch the soul. Salaks has devoted all of his creative energy to researching Latvian folk music. Many of his compositions include his own arrangements of the melodies he's unearthed.
When conductor Andrejs Jansons invited him to write a Christmas cantata the composer once again turned to various Latvian Christmas melodies and folk tunes. At the end of the cantata titled, "On Christmas Eve," he adds a familiar American Christmas song, "Away in a Manager." He tosses in a bit of Franz Gruber's "Silent Night," for good measure.
Ugis Praulins is a composer, pianist, recording engineer and a producer. His contribution to "Christmas Joy in Latvia," combines the pagan and Christian traditions in a piece titled "Latvian Solstice in the New World." Praulins has never been a fan of quiet Christmas songs with standard texts and melodies. He prefers to disturb the solitude so people can feel real joy. We hear friends and neighbors anticipating the bliss of spring and sunshine in "Mummers" -- where the string parts may remind you of fiddles at a hoe-down.
Juris Karlsons was visiting friends in Chicago when he came across some little-known Latvian poetry books. When he returned to Latvia he based his Christmas cantata on some of these poems. It just wouldn't be Christmas without a soft blanket of snow. The crystalline soprano solo on "The Sparkling Snow-Covered Fields," sets the mood of the season beautifully.
The kokle is a traditional Latvian stringed instrument much like a zither or a dulcimer, and it's used to accompany village songs. We hear it on a lovely Christmas song by Bruno Skulte titled "At Christmas Time." The solo soprano, accompanied only by the kokle, truly captures the heart of the Christmas season.
The cantatas contained within "Christmas Joy in Latvia," are enchanting. It's exhilarating to hear these newly commissioned pieces with the New York Latvian Choir. While preserving Latvian tradition, they're also introducing fresh repertoire for the holiday season.