Our Choir's History

In the autumn of 1975, a new singing group was formed—the New York Latvian Concert Choir. Andrejs Jansons took on its musical leadership: musician, composer, conductor, artistic director. The choir held its debut performance in the spring of 1976. And now, the choir's work is carrying it into its fifth decade!

To quote the folk song:

Who can count the stars,
Or gather the sands in the sea?
Who can sing the songs
Or speak in every tongue?

Looking back over these years, we won't try to account for all we've accomplished, bit by bit or year by year. The choir has sung for many years at the Latvian Church in Yonkers, on Christmas Eve, Easter morning, on Latvian holidays, and until 1996 participated without interruption in every Latvian Song Festival both in America and Canada, as well as in Münster, Germany, even in 1990 and 1993 in Latvia. Each spring, we've come before our audience with a new program at our annual workshop and concert in the Catskills, often with guest conductors, choirs, and soloists. Song has been the bedrock of our work and friendship with neighboring choirs, Canada in particular, and especially with musicians from Latvia.

Our director, Andrejs Jansons, laid the artistic foundations for our work. Over the years, our goals have taken form, branched out, and strengthened. At their foundation is the desire to sing, and for that singing to be an active part of Latvian musical heritage. And so, perhaps more than others, the New York Latvian Concert Choir has gone its own way in fulfilling its responsibilities:

  • To promote the composition and performance of new Latvian musical works, for—as long as our young composers produce music for Latvian song and for the Latvian spirit, if there were no voices, who would give it life?
  • To take in and encourage younger adults as singers, instrumentalists, and soloists.
  • To perform Latvian musical masterworks in the great concert halls, with professional orchestras and soloists.

We embarked on this path in 1977, with the performance of Bruno Skulte's symphonic poem, "Daugava", at Lincoln Center in New York. In following years came Andrejs Jansons' musical "Spriditis", Aldonis Kalnins' oratorio of ancient battle songs, Bruno Skulte's "Ganins Biju" (A Herder's Life), Viktors Bastiks' "Requiem", Dace Aperane's "Voices", Harold Berino's "Star Bridge", and many more.

Perhaps our most ambitious project was our concert performance of Alfred Kalnins' opera "Banuta". When Carnegie Hall resounded with "Banuta", the singers felt joy, pride, and yes, also humility. The next generation had the opportunity to connect—to experience—the richness and depth of the Latvian musical legacy. We sang "Banuta" twice more, at the Milwaukee (U.S.) and Münster (Germany) Song Festivals. Even though we had to pay our own way(!), owing to the festival committees' tight finances, we were integral to both festivals.

Starting around the same time period, and still continuing, are our Advent concert performances of newly commissioned works.

In 1987, we took on another big project—Alfred Kalnins' second opera, "Salinieki" (Islanders), which we performed in Münster, Germany. In 1988 we sang, and this time performed with complete costumes and sets, Andrejs Jansons' musical "Gundega", with sets by Evalds Dajevskis and libretto by Vilnis Baumanis.

In 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, new paths opened themselves up to the choir, with the opportunity to work with Latvian conductors and choirs for the first time. That summer, 90 of us traveled to Riga! We performed two separate programs four times at the National Opera, then on to Valmiera, then back to Riga and St. Matthew's Church and the Dom Church. It's unlikely anyone, either choir or audience, will ever forget those performances! We sang songs unheard, and words unsaid—which at best might have been exchanged in whispers:

Land, land, what is that land?
Oh land, that is our country!

Our close involvement with Latvia continued in 1990. More than 20,000 singers participated in the Song Festival in Riga, with our choir returning to Riga to be right in the middle of it all. The following year, we prepared a concert together with the Riga Radio Choir and its director, performing in New York as well as Toronto, before the Song Festival. In 1995, together with members of the "Sonora" Choir, led by E. Racevskis, we performed the Latvian premiere of five Advent cantatas. Singing with the National Opera Orchestra was a great event and wonderful experience for singers and audience alike. We performed Ilze Akerberga's "Christmas in Latgale", Brigita Ritmane's "Christ is Born," Arvils Altmanis' "On this Holy Night", Anita Kuprisa's "A Star, the Night, and a Miracle" and Peter Aldins' "On this Holy Night."

In 1996, we started to work together with the New York Estonian Choir; happy for the beautiful voices, happy for the friendship. And it could be, perhaps, that such friendship is only a worthy repayment for endless hours of study and endless miles of traveling to and from rehearsals!

However, as the 90's drew to a close, the choir felt an absence of new singers. The thrill seemed to be gone. Perhaps it was because our greatest dream had been fulfilled: that of Latvians singing together, reunited and in unison, at the Song Festival, in an independent Latvia.

This was a difficult time for the choir, nevertheless, one needs to find new roads, and always does, nurturing ones heritage and culture in another land.

In 1997 and 1998 we formed a partnership with an American choir. To add more depth, Andrejs Jansons invited the Bergen Chorale to jointly perform five canatatas for the Advent concert. At the camp in the Catskills, sounded the voices of Vizma Maksina's choir "Dzirkstis" and preparations for the Song Festival abroad. As always, the choir filled out the service at the Latvian cemetery on Memorial Day and performed a concert at the camp auditorium afterwards.

On July 14th, 1998, we performed Faure's "Requiem" together with the Bergen Chorale, in observation of Latvia's Deportee's Day of Remembance, for those whom the Soviets sent to exile, and often death, in Siberia.

In 1998, the Song Festival program in Latvia also included Andrejs Jansons' musical "Money Fever", with Arnold Linins' direction. The cast was primarily Latvian-American, with the able help of young, talented actors from Riga. There were eight performances in all, two at the National Theater, and six on tour around Latvia. In the fall, we also particiapted in the 18th of November Independence Day celebration held at the Latvian Yonkers church, singing our best-loved folk songs.

That was the same year in which we also felt a heavy loss, as our long time choir head passed away. We lost the heart and soul of our choir, Aina Poilova.

In the spring of 1999, we sang Bruno Skulte's "Ganins Biju" (A Herder's Life) together with our friends in song from Montreal. We also had a number of young performers as well. We were gratified by our listeners' warm response.

In 2000, we celebrated in concert, and reflected on the arrival of, the 25th anniversary of our founding, performing a rich program to a full house in the Catskills. Dinner and dancing followed—we rejoiced in meeting old members and their "offshoots." Hopefully, they—or their offshoots—will some day make it back to join our ranks once more!

As we enter our fifth decade, well into a new milennium, new faces are now appearing in the choirs' rows. Among the singers are both non-Latvians as well as Latvians from Latvia, here to study or work. The choir is a living, ever changing part of Latvian life. Music, as always, is our common language.

So long as there are those to listen, so long the New York Latvian Concert Choir will sing to honor its heritage: its music, its language, and—free once again—its land.

Originally written by Aina Poilova (translated from the Latvian), updated by Aija Pelse and Peters Vecrumba.

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