Vocal Precision from a Venerable Choir

United StatesUnited States Various Composers: The Latvian National Choir,  Māris Sirmais (conductor), Baryshnikov Arts Center, Jerome Robbins Performance Space, New York City. 11.4.2015 (BH)

Vytautas Miskinis: O salutaris hostia
Eric Whitacre: Lux Aurumque
Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry
Arvo Pärt: Which was the Son of  
Vaclovas Augustinas: Cantata Domino
Uģis Prauliņš: Veni Sancte Spiritus
Jēkabs Jančevskis: Odplyw (U.S. Premiere)
Gundega Šmite: Song of stone (U.S. Premiere)
Raimonds Tiguls: Moon Light Sound Design (U.S. Premiere)
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Northern Lights
Veljo Tormis: Ingrian Evenings

In 2010, the Latvian National Choir stunned audiences at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in a performance for Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. Most memorable was Ligeti’s densely scored Lux aeterna, with the singers lining the church’s walls, engulfing the audience in the composer’s radiance.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Baryshnikov Arts Center—founded by artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2005—the choir returned with a fascinating array of composers, primarily from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The lone American, Eric Whitacre, was represented by Lux Arumque (2000) for a cappella choir, with tightly-knit harmonies making a gradual arc from mild dissonance to serene consonance, and requiring expert tuning to make its effect.

Of the group, the best known may have been Arvo Pärt, represented by The Deer’s Cry (2007), a setting of the poem “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and Which was the Son of… (2000), with texts from the Bible’s book of Luke. In the former, Pärt cushions the phrases (“Christ with me…Christ before me…Christ behind me”) with luxurious rests as the piece ascends in intensity. The latter work opens fortissimo, with the title repeated almost like a fanfare. Each showed the choir’s exquisite intonation.

But the less-familiar composers made a striking impression. Jēkabs Jančevskis (b. 1992) used Polish texts by Tadeusz Dąbrowski to create the mysterious Odplyw. Controlled breathing, whispers and group glissandos set the backdrop for melismatic solos, before the piece flooded the room with a huge, late-Romantic chord. In Moon Light Sound Design, Raimonds Tiguls (b. 1972) played a flying saucer-shaped hand drum called a hang, with an appealing gong-like resonance. As Tiguls created glowing ostinatos to anchor the vocals, several of the singers stood behind the group, adding an intriguing echo effect.

Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Northern Lights deployed muted handbells and goblets of water, the latter gently rubbed to evoke the title’s iridescence, and in Song of Stone by Gundega Šmite (b. 1977), hyena-like cries, sustained chords, and charging rhythms combined in a gloriously extroverted dance. Completing the program were fascinating works by Vytautas Miskinis, Vaclovas Augustinas, Uģis Prauliņš and Veljo Tormis.

Two encores based on Latvian folk songs—Riga dimd (arr. Jānis Cimze) and Pūt, vējiņi (arr. Imants Ramiņš)—ended the evening on a stirring note, and only reaffirmed the choir’s extraordinary artistry.

Bruce Hodges


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