Latvia's El Sistema
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.That is the thought provoking explanation from the official Latvian Institute website as to why Latvia produces so many outstanding musicians. It is difficult to argue with the evidence. Latvia's population is 2.2 million, which is less than half that of Scotland. Currently the chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertguebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, and the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Andris Nelsons, are both Latvian, as is the mezzo Elīna Garanča who stars at the world’s leading opera houses. The Latvian Radio Choir has an international reputation as have a number of Latvian composers led by the senior figure of Pēteris Vasks. Last month the prestigious International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, the competition that brought Gustavo Dudamel to public attention when he was the first winner in 2004, was won by the young Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis.
Nowadays, many Latvian families are still 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.
As if all that was not enough Latvia has produced a new generation of outstanding young composers including Santa Ratniece, Anitra Tumševica (both women incidentally) Mārtiņš Viļums, and Ēriks Ešenvalds. This new generation of Latvian composers are really starting to make their mark outside their home country and the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony directed by Stephen Layton are recording Ēriks Ešenvalds' oratorio Passion and Resurrection for Hyperion next week after public concerts in Cambridge and Norwich. Before the Norwich concert on Friday (April 9) Ēriks Ešenvalds, seen in my header photo, will be joining me for a pre-concert talk which will range from Soviet music education to the stylistic influences on his own music.
In a typically imaginative and astringent concert the Britten Sinfonia programmes Ēriks Ešenvalds' music alongside Bach and Arvo Pärt. The opening work is Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, which when combined with my theme of music education allows me to ask Where is your pie?
* My pre-concert talk with Ēriks Ešenvalds can be heard as a podcast here.
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