Bach’s New Clothes. A Talk with Mārtiņš Ozoliņš

Bach’s New Clothes. A Talk with Mārtiņš Ozoliņš
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga 2014 . Mārtiņš Ozoliņš
Una Griškeviča
Flutes are tweeting and the sounds of clarinets and other musical instruments can be heard at the cosy office of the Professional Symphonic Band “Riga” on Kronvalda bulvāris as the band is preparing for the festival “Windstream” concert at the Great Guild Hall, which will mark the 329th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach on the 31st of March. But there is more that the ensemble is looking forward to – the international composers’ competition “Windstream 2014” will be held in less than a month, in mid-April, followed by the award ceremony and a concert featuring music by the members of the jury.

New colours, shapes, sound

“Why is it Bach this year? I would like to associate it with Riga being the European Capital of Culture this year. Last year we celebrated the anniversaries of Wagner and Verdi, Mozart’s music is also performed quite frequently. Bach, on the other hand, is a bit more foreign to a wind orchestra, there is a certain distance between the composer and a wind orchestra due to the boundaries dictated by the genre,” Mārtiņš Ozoliņš, the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Professional Symphonic Band “Riga”, replies when asked why Bach has been selected for both the March 31st concert and the festival “Windstream” competition. Ozoliņš goes on to say that he considers Bach to be the foundation of all things polyphonic and of the versatility of genres, which is also evident in contemporary music: “There are very many reasons why Bach has been chosen. To a composer who arranges Bach’s music, there are many opportunities to express him or herself.”


Speaking of the concert on Monday, the 31st of March, which will present new compositions by six Latvian composers – Laura Gustovska, Sabīne Ķezbere, Jēkabs Nīmanis, Leons Amoliņš, Viļnis Šmīdbergs and Valdis Zilvers – Ozoliņš says that new music always takes more time and effort than something that has already been played before.

“Some composers have examined Bach’s music from various viewpoints, others have tried to stay within the forms, boundaries and stylistics of Bach. Some of the composers were influenced by the fugues, while others used a prelude or a piano concerto as a basis. Therefore the genres of the compositions will also differ.

There will be arrangements of Bach’s works as well as compositions that have been inspired by his musical genius. To be precise, all the composers have been inspired by Bach. There’s a great number of classical arrangements of Johann Sebastian’s music in the world, but we wanted to show Bach in new colours, sound, through a contemporary prism, to show what it could have been if Bach were alive today. We will see at the concert how the composers have gone about it, what’s the story behind every composition.”

Mārtiņš Ozoliņš reminds us that the orchestra originally announced a competition of ideas for the concert organisers to consider, and only those ideas that seemed interesting enough and worth pursuing were selected. “Taking into consideration how many composers there are in Latvia who write music for wind orchestras, and seeing how many new compositions are created, I’d say that the response was quite overwhelming. As a result, we have six new compositions – not bad at all.”


Bach would have no objections

Although Bach never composed music for a wind orchestra, there have been quite a few works by Bach in the repertoire of the Professional Symphonic Band “Riga”. “However, the idea for this particular concert, organised in collaboration with Riga, the European Capital of Culture 2014, and stage director Uģis Brikmanis, was to popularise Latvian composers’ ideas and thoughts and to address international audiences. In our opinion, it is also important that a long time and many years have passed so we could show how Bach sounds 300 years later. Of course, Bach is an eternal value, as well as an undeniable influence on composers and musicians’ work.” What would Bach say about the contemporary interpretations of his music?

“Taking into account how innovative Bach’s music was at the time and knowing how creative he was in various areas, I believe that we in the 21st century are not transgressing any borders. I believe he would have no objections.”

The conductor adds that composers’ interpretations of Bach may be up for discussion. “For example, Leons Amoliņš, inspired by Bach’s Minuet I and Sarabande from the French Suite, has created the “Invitation to a Dance”, where “the Minuet, being a faster dance, invites Sarabande to demonstrate its harmonic splendour and the emotionally-inward confidence.” Which composition is more important, the Sarabande or the Minuet, and which will win in the end? This helps take a fresh perspective on the composition, treat it differently from Bach, at the same time keeping the melodic and harmonic structure intact, supplementing it with the composer’s own vision. We can go on like this to discuss every work where composers analyse Bach.

To some it may have been a childhood trauma from the music school where he or she had to play Bach’s fugues, or perhaps they drew inspiration from listening to Bach’s toccatas performed on our famous organ in the Riga Dom. 

This time, Bach will be wearing a different set of clothes, and music does not have to be interpreted in a straightforward manner. “It would add to the intrigue if the concert programme included the composers’ thoughts about their compositions. I, too, being aware of the ideas and hearing how they are implemented, am beginning to have a different view of the compositions,” says the conductor.


Almost the entire spectrum of Europe

While music for the concert on the 31st of March has been evaluated and commissioned by the orchestra’s representatives, the International Composers’ Competition “Windstream”, dedicated to Bach, is something completely different as it will demonstrate how composers’ creativity may take us somewhere very far from Bach. “A very large number of works has been submitted for the competition, of which we have selected five for the final. The five works represent five very different European countries: Italy, Germany, Latvia, Finland and Great Britain – a very broad spectrum,” Mārtiņš Ozoliņš comments on the competition’s final, set for the 19th of April. When Ozoliņš is asked whether it is too ambitious – to arrange Bach’s compositions in contemporary styles, and how confident one has to be to even touch Bach’s works, he replies – just look how extensively Bach’s melodies and intonations are used in today’s rock and pop music.

“This international competition was not as much meant for the composers to transform Bach but to see what influence Bach has had on the composers, on form, harmony and polyphony. And the ideas we have seen are from all over the spectrum, because the competition does not require quotations from Bach’s music to be included in the compositions.”

The competitors’ works will be evaluated by an international jury made up of renowned composers and conductors, and it is their works that will be performed during the “jury concert” at the Great Guild Hall on the 17th of April. The concert programme includes Toshio Mashima’s “Birds”, with saxophonist Oskars Petrauskis playing the solo part, whereas the other part of the concert features compositions by Jan Van der Roost, Franco Cesarini and Andris Dzenītis (who is also a member of the jury).


“All the programmes of the competitions are truly complex and voluminous, besides, contemporary composers can create unimaginable things that may strain a choir to the limit. This time though we don’t have to interpret anything but to precisely perform what every composer has written. After all, this is a competition, we cannot change a thing. We may add something later, during the gala concert and the award ceremony.” Mārtiņš Ozliņš is confident that his orchestra will be up to the mark, although he adds that this is a very hard and physically tasking job. “In a symphony orchestra, it is the strings that usually play the main role, with the other groups joining in occasionally. For a wind orchestra, playing a 45-minute concert with three complicated composition is a great deal of stress!”

After the festival is over, the Professional Symphonic Band “Riga” will begin thinking about the next year because, according to Mārtiņš Ozoliņš, they always try to come up with new ideas for the spring festival “Windstream”. “We could also think of something interesting for the next year, when Latvia will hold the European Union’s Presidency, but for the moment we have to sort out the programmes at hand,” the conductor sums up before leaving for a rehearsal with the orchestra.


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