No Time to Think About the Past. Conductor Jānis Liepiņš

No Time to Think About the Past. Conductor Jānis Liepiņš
LETA . Conductor Jānis Liepiņš
Una Griškeviča
Having just received the “Grand Music Award 2013” as the best young artist, conductor Jānis Liepiņš is not about to rest on his laurels: already this weekend, on the 15th and 16th of March, his youth choir “Kamēr...” will present a new programme, “Amber songs”, whereas on the 26th of April, Jānis will conduct the performance of Zigmars Liepiņš “Transcendental Oratorio” in the Riga Dom, featuring the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, State Choir “Latvija”, and opera singers Aleksandrs Antoņenko and Inga Šļubovska. Although obviously very busy, Jānis willingly agrees to speak with us, even though he does sigh – in jest – that this would be his third interview today.

On the 4th of March you were on the stage of the Latvian National Opera to accept the country’s highest recognition in music, the Grand Music Award. Do you consider it to be advance appreciation or a burden?

Actually I would not really like to use the word “burden” but, of course, now I will have to prove why I have received the award every time. I am aware that it was given to me for past events. And that is the idea – this is the past for me, these events took place last year, and I have to look ahead at what will happen now and later in the future. Certainly, I was very happy and very honoured to receive the award, furthermore, it was presented by Jānis Ērenštreits! (Smiles) that was fantastic!

Was Ērenštreits your teacher at the Dārziņš School?

He taught us choral singing at the very beginning, the first three grades. And we did not even have to study much – his very presence and the way he taught conveyed some kind of magic to the Dom Choir School. We always took heed of Ērenštreits’ advice about what a real gentleman must be like; he was always an example to learn from.


A colleague of yours – we will not mention his name – had the odd habit of hanging the Grand Music Awards he had received on a string, upside down. How do you keep your awards?

(Laughs) I have only one Grand Music Award, so I would not be able to make a string of awards, and it would not be pretty.

However, my awards shelf looks quite attractive: there is the European Grand Prix, the Grand Music Award, the Music Recording Award I received last year for “Mēness dziesmas” (Moon Songs), as well as the Song Festival Cup. 

That sounds serious – all those awards at the very outset of a career. But you do have something to strive for – the Grammy, for example...

Yes, for example (smiles). I may try to think of it as my next goal. Seriously though, of course I could perhaps win another Grand Music Award, for an interpretation or performance, once I have more experience, as I will hardly get another award for the best debut. Well maybe for a lifetime achievement (laughs). But nothing is ever done just because of awards, unless I go to a competition hoping to get an award. And even then, winning the award is not the most important thing.


What is the most important – is it work, or the process?

To me, the most important thing is the result that I want to attain through work. When I am working, it is important for me not to let myself down, not to let down the musicians before me, but above all – not to let the listeners down. Performing music is a job that carries great responsibility.

After all, people have paid money to see the concert, whereas I want to give them the best I can give. That is just natural, I think. If everything turns out well and people appreciate what they have seen, I feel happy.

When last Tuesday Ērenštreits tore open the envelope with the winner’s name and said, “That’s what I thought”, did you know that moment that you had won?

I recently saw a video, from a Grammy or Oscar awards ceremony, I don’t remember – one of the nominees got very excited when she heard the first letters of her name, but the award went to another nominee. So I was composed right up until my name and surname were announced, I did not want to think how I would climb the stage and what I would say (laughs). Of course, within my subconscious there was some kind of a text, names of teachers I had to thank, but how exactly to formulate my gratitude… The speech was spontaneous. To be frank, I was so thrilled I even forgot my parents were in the hall (composer and LNO Chairman of the Board Zigmars Liepiņš and singer, stage director and editor Mirdza Zīvere). And how could they even help me? Of course, my parents were happy, and they were worried about their son. They were present when we took the European Grand Prix in Arezzo with the choir “Kamēr…”, and mom later told me they were extremely nervous before the award ceremony, even more than now at the Grand Music Award ceremony. Maybe people get used to this (smiles)?


Besides the award, you have also won a “Hennessy” scholarship. Have you decided already how you will use it?

The definition is “for master classes and studies”. I have not yet decided what to do with this money, but I will soon. Maybe I will participate in a symphony orchestra conducting competition. That is what all conductors do, and that is fine, irrespective of whether you get an award or not. That is valuable experience, you have to go through voluminous repertoire. And it’s not easy at all to actually participate in such a competition – some 240 people usually apply, of which about sixteen get through to the final. That is something I could aim for in the future. And the money will come in handy, because I will have to buy scores and pay application fees. This may be quite expensive. And the farther the competition is from Latvia, the more expensive it is.

During the Grand Music Awards ceremony, you and your choir presented one song from the “Amber Songs” project, which will be performed in full on the 15th and 16th of March. Is the project your idea?

The idea of a series of songs to be later released in recordings was proposed by Māris Sirmais. Before “Amber Songs” there were “Saules dziesmas” (Sun Songs) and “Mēness dziesmas” (Moon Songs). But “Kamēr…” and I had not really tried singing folksongs in earnest. We did have one or two classical folksongs, “Pūt, vējiņi” (Blow, Wind), “Rīga dimd” (Riga Resounds). We release a new album every year and are truly proud of this, I believe that no other amateur choir in Latvia does that. Some people have said that we could sing folksongs.

I thought – why not? Except, these songs should have added value in being not just classical folksongs but interpretations by internationally popular composers. This would be unique because nothing like that has ever happened before.

That is how the idea came about, and we started to work on it, looking for composers. Some composers I know in person – these include Latvian composers, Lithuania’s Vytautas Miškinis has written “Saules dziesma” (The Sun Song) for the project. Then there were other names I knew, as well as composers unknown in Latvia although their music is performed in concert halls all over the world. It was clear to me that we definitely needed to have an Indian composer. Param Vir is virtually unknown in Latvia, but his music has been performed in Covent Garden, his compositions have been played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and he is an acclaimed classical music composer. We wanted to present to the Latvian public composers that are unknown here. There are, of course, composers who are popular in Latvia – Gabriel Jackson and Jan Sandström, but the others, whose music has not been performed here, are very successful in the West.


Did they willingly venture to do something like this – arrange some completely unfamiliar folksongs to create their own versions of them?

Indeed they did! Some composers were very concerned about creating their versions on schedule, having a multitude of other projects, but as far as I remember, no one declined. It was also very interesting for them as it was not just another usual commission: it doesn’t happen very often that you are given material that already exists, that you are allowed to choose which melody you like better, and also the lyrics are important. Some of them prefer composing operas, for instance, Nicholas Lens of Belgium. We performed a song he had arranged at the Grand Music Awards ceremony. Others compose classical music but less choral music, therefore such an opportunity may give them new and unexplored horizons. (Thinks) there are composers who conduct high-class choirs and therefore know choir specifics very well, they accept commissions from choirs in various parts of the world, and they know very well what a choir can do.

How did you choose the composers to arrange the songs?

Ethnomusicologist Dr. Valdis Muktupāvels was the “starting point”. A professional, he selected folksongs to be as different as possible, including the content.

Of course, we could have created a programme where all songs would be sad – as Latvians prefer them to be, but I wanted the program to be rich and colourful.

A list of thirty folksongs was made: melodies, lyrics and, which is very important, translations. And not just word-for-word translations but such that revealed the actual meaning of the songs. For instance, a song may be about hunting partridges, whereas the story it actually tells is about a young man looking for a girl to marry. I would not have known this, and I am grateful to Valdis for telling me a lot about folksongs that are supposed to be understood differently. The composers come from such different countries and each has a different mentality, therefore they each took one composition that seemed closer to them (smiles). Probably except the Russian composer who chose six songs as he wanted to make – not really a medley but some kind of layering of one song onto another, which is why he didn’t use entire songs but motifs (laughs). I like variety, not just in the choice of composers but also in their approach to arranging the songs. Some are quite classical, with a melody and harmony where everything is fluent and changeable, while in other compositions the melody has been hidden in a cloud of sounds so that it’s barely recognisable, and other harmonies that leave you guessing where the melody is. Then there are composers who prefer a slightly different and more avant-garde style, for example, the Belgian composer’s arrangement of “Gaismiņa ausa” (The Dawn of Light) which we sang at the Grand Music Awards ceremony. The song is about a young guy looking for a girl to marry, encountering all kinds of characters representing nature along the way, which is where the composer drew his inspiration.

I suppose no Latvian would ever do it this way, therefore it is all the more interesting to see how the composers treat our folksongs differently. Hence the versatile programme that will suit all tastes, from slightly crazy interpretations to classical, beautiful and easily recognisable songs.

The programme will also be recorded on a CD and I believe we will present it during the World Choir Games along with a concert and master classes.

It appears to me that a brief motif of the original version of each folksong should be performed before the new versions.

It will be, as a kind of interlude – an authentic performance of the song, to make it perfectly clear to the listener what kind of a folksong it is before the interpretation of the song by a foreign composer is performed.

I have been in contact with many composers during the project, not because they had questions, but rather because I had questions (laughs). Certainly, there were composers who asked if they could do it this or that way, or how many singers there were in each group. But the hardest work, the fine-tuning, will take place in the few days before the premiere of the concert programme, because the composers will be here. They will be present at rehearsals, hear how it all sounds, and express their opinion. What the composer had in mind is one thing, and what I thought of it may be another thing altogether. In the end, the entire programme will be made up of the sum total of the various interpretations.


The process was very interesting from the very beginning, when I learned which composer chose what. It often seemed as if the melodies had come from the composer’s homeland. For instance, the Israeli composer selected “Ai, Dieviņi, augstu saule” (God, High Is Thy Sun), which has a certain Eastern touch to it, likewise, I would have never thought that “Kālabad galdiņam” (Why Would the Table), arranged by the Indian, could sound like an Indian song from Bollywood (smiles)… The Spanish – to be more precise, the Basque composer Xabier Sarasola chose “Vēja māte” (The Wind Mother), a song about a fisherman who drowns in the sea and is being looked for by his sister, saying that this song was very close to him (he lives by the sea). The song has a very beautiful melody, it is a wonderful folksong in which Xabier saw many similarities with his own culture, and to which he added some motifs from a Basque folksong about a father who perishes in the sea. One more thing that I believe important – a folksong arranged by Pēteris Plakidis will also be included in the project. I consider Plakidis to be one of the best Latvian composers who has been undeservedly out of the public eye.

Can your choristers handle all this?

They surely can (laughs)! Of course, this is not simple, but we do need to have challenges. We are very active. We are supposed to have two rehearsals a week, but we have had twice as many for a long time, there is just no other way.

Will new garments be created for the new programme?

Yes, the costume designer Kristīne Pasternaka has designed new garments for us. However, they are not in amber colours or anything like that. You never know what something will look like in the end until you have seen it in its entirety. So far, I have seen a few designs, but I will see all of them together only at the premiere of the programme (smiles).


It seems that the other project that many listeners are eagerly waiting for is the “Transcendental Oratory” by Zigmars Liepiņš and Andra Manfelde, which will be performed on the 26th of April…

Yes, and it will be performed by a completely different and much more serious ensemble of the State Choir “Latvija”, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, opera singers Inga Šļubovska and Aleksandrs Antoņenko, and an organ. (Thinks) this is also a very serious composition. Looking at the score and sketches, I think it might be one of my father’s best works.

I do not want to speak too soon, but it’s a very emotional and touching work that will not leave anyone indifferent. The line-up of these great musicians is necessary to convey the almightiness of God and inevitability of fate, when you are powerless, faced with the forces of nature, and the true love that binds mother and child, that the mother is ready to give her life to save her child and make him understand, “If I do not survive, remember that I love you”.

The very message of the composition is very powerful and it shows in the music, which is truly fantastic. That is why this will be such a major event, and I am waiting for it impatiently as I very much want to hear how it will sound.

Tell me again please, what the story of the composition will be about.

This is a true story that my father found on the Internet: after an earthquake in Japan, rescuers were combing through the debris, looking for survivors. They found a woman under the rubble who was lying in a strange pose, but she was obviously dead and they left the scene. Yet something compelled them to return and to eventually find that she had used her body to shield her baby, still alive. There was a cell phone next to the baby, with a message, “If you can survive, you must remember that I love you.” This story is the basis of the text, which also includes psalms from the Bible that show the power of God, whereas the original text is by Andra Manfelde. In this case, the text will also be translated into English, and the composition will mostly be performed in English so more people could understand the story (falls silent).

I believe that Andra has perfectly captured the thoughts and feelings that a mother may have in such a situation, something that no words can describe, something horrible – and at the same time, epic and true.

And besides, you will have to oversee the orchestra, the choir and the soloists…

Yes, but I would not call it “handling” (smiles). After all, a year ago I had a similar ensemble – I conducted the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, a choir and two soloists in Liepāja and Riga. Now it is the same, just a few more people in the choir and orchestra. But I will think about that when the “Amber songs” project is over, because rehearsals of the oratorio begin in April. Having said that – of course I know the oratorio by heart.

What will you be thinking when these two major projects will have concluded?

Next year is very important for us, because the choir “Kamēr…” will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. There will be a proper party to which the former and current conductors will be invited.

You once said in an interview that you dream of conducting “Tosca” in the opera…

I did say it about “Tosca”, but now I have made it as far as Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” – I will be the second conductor and assistant to Aleksandrs Viļumanis. The premiere at the Latvian National Opera is in May, and rehearsals will start already in April, parallel to everything else. So there will be lots of work! I still hope that I will conduct a “Tosca” sometime in the future. Also, opera will be a completely new genre for me as a conductor, which means I will have to understand how it is run and how rehearsals are organised. I am about to experience all that, so we will see how it goes.


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