America is often referred to as the “land of opportunity.” For me, however, Latvia offers more fascinating experiences and chances for success than I could ever hope to find in my home country.
Four years ago, my life changed forever when I attended a performance of the Youth Choir Kamēr… under its founding director, Māris Sirmais. Performing works of Pēteris Vasks, Ēriks Ešenvalds, and legendary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, the choir held an audience of American conductors in its grasp for 30 minutes. It was accurate, intense, and emotional, and I had to hear more.
With the support of Miami University, I visited Latvia in the summer of 2012 to observe rehearsals of the country’s best choirs: the Latvian Radio Choir, State Choir Latvija, and of course, Kamēr…. The staff, singers, and conductors were welcoming and helpful, answering the initial questions I had about this small country’s deep choral culture.
Everything that I learned about Latvia, its music, and its people inspired me to dig deeper. I studied the Latvian language in an intensive summer program, and I returned to Miami University to practice tautas dziesmas with a newly-formed Latvian choir. We approached the music with love and respect; it’s an experience I will never forget.
But there is no replacement for the real thing. And while America does offer plenty of opportunities for singers and conductors to perform at a high level, we lack the cultural depth, national infrastructure, and societal interest to support choral music as it is supported in Latvia. Last summer, I moved to Latvia to be a part of the choral magic. I joined Kamēr…, began studying with Māris Sirmais, and found work as an assistant conductor with the mixed choir Dziesmuvara.
In the last nine months, in addition to becoming a better conductor and musician, I’ve learned more about what choral music means to Latvia and its people. Along the way, I’ve been welcomed warmly by my friends and colleagues; all doors are open to experience Latvia’s cultural beauty.
Choral music represents the very best aspects of what it means to be Latvian: the work ethic required to make a performance spotless for Skate; the passion that brings a singer to tears during every performance of Pūt, vējiņi; the fascination that enables performances to be heard in packed concert halls, on television broadcasts, and even over the radio in Riga’s taxis.
I love the nation of my birth, but I found my home in Latvia and its nation of singers.
Christopher Walsh is an American conductor, singer, and writer. He has lived in Riga since 2015.