The Latvian National Choir Deliver Rapture and Transcendence

by delarue

Saturday night in Hell’s Kitchen, in their first American performance since their 2010 Lincoln Center concert, the Latvian National Choir sang a spellbinding program of both iconic and new material from their native land. Conductor Māris Sirmais was a calmly triumphant presence in front of the ensemble, working the dynamics meticulously in a program packed with lustre and atmosphere but also percussive grooves, labyrinthine counterpoint and choreography. The ensemble was called on for a lot more than a choir is typically required to, and delivered it.

Latvian music is commonly perceived as otherworldly and often rapturously hypnotic, and while those qualities were front and center throughout the evening, the compositions on the bill transcended any association with a region or era. The most dramatic, at least as presented by the choir, was Vytautas Miskinis’ O Salutaris Hostia, jeweled with waves of shapeshifting, rhythmically challenging contrapuntal melodies that rippled throughout the ensemble as two groups slowly made their way down the stairs on both sides of the audience for extra surround-sound ambience.

With her bell-like clarity, soprano Inese Romancane was a particular standout, notably in the one American piece on the program. Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled, ambered Lux Aurumque. She also took centerstage along with fellow sopranos Darta Treja, Sanita Sinkevica and Irina Rebhuna in the American premiere of Raimonds Tiguls’ Moon Light Sound Design, a pointillistic, gamelanesque mini-suite featuring the composer himsef on hang, a drum the size of a large turtleshell that produces steel pan-like ripples and pings. Rebhuna’s dynamically-charged solo was the highlight of Jekabs Janchevskis’ misterioso, ethereal Odplyw, another US premiere.

Arvo Part was represented by the characteristically terse, rapt The Deer’s Cry and the less characteristic, plainchant-tinged Which Was the Son Of. Likewise, modernity and antiquity contrasted with Vaclovas Augustinas’ Cantata Domino and Ugis Praulins’ Veni Sancte Spiritus. Aivars Krastins and Eduards Fiskovics sang while adding an unexpectedly bouncy edge with small tam-tam drums in yet another US premiere, Gundega Smite’s Song of Stone, which came across as more of a lively quarrymens’ theme than any kind of monolithic presence. And Eriks Esenvalds’ Northern Lights, with an affectingly austere solo by tenor Janis Krumins, reverted to the polyrhythmic magic of the opening number. Veljo Tormis’ Ingrian Evenings wound up the bill on an enveloping note, giving Romancane a launching pad for the evening’s most pyrotechnic display of sheer vocal power. There were two encores, both new arrangements of iconic folk songs: Riga Dimd, arranged by Janis Cimze, and Put Vejini, the Latvian national song, in a boisterious arrangement by Imants Raimins. What a treat it was to be able to catch this magical group, especially considering how eclectic and downright rare the material was this time out. Keep your eyes out for an upcoming Lincoln Center appearance sometime in the future.