The twists and turns through the gratuitous retail of the Vienna airport will take you to one of the quieter gates, where fewer travelers have reason to go. The women are rounder than the angular Austrians, the men paler. Cigarette smoke from a recent era still clouds the air, and strangers examine you with the silent habits of people who wish to gossip but cannot speak out loud.
I was poorly prepared to arrive in Riga. In the airport I read enough on Wikipedia to learn that Latvia has largely been an occupied country for much of its history: Riga, the capital, was the second largest city in the Swedish empire for much of the 17th century, for example, and the Germans took over for during the 19th. They were responsible for building beautiful guild halls with stained glass windows honoring their members: the glove maker, the hat maker, the tanner. Men preserved in glass like the Madonna. They watched over my recital with their placid Lutheran gazes.
What were we doing there? Some years ago I worked with a brilliant young woman named Kerri Spindler-Ranta (or Kerija Spindlera-Ranta as her Latvian business card says. They like to put a’s at the end of women’s names and s’s at the end of men’s.) Massachusetts-born Kerri has done just about every cool government program you can imagine, from the Fulbright (Korea), Peace Corps (Mauritania), AmeriCorps (Minnesota), to her current position in the foreign service. A few months after she started her first post as cultural attaché, she dropped me a line inviting me to perform on Riga’s early music festival. Latvia has a longstanding and beautiful choral tradition, and Kerri felt that a vocal program by an American would appeal to local music lovers. It turns out that the early music community in Riga didn’t know that America has its own early music scene; my friend Gabe Shuford and I would be the first Americans to perform on the festival.
In addition to our recital, I would sing on the gala concert at the close of the festival, in Rundale Palace, about an hour’s drive outside of Riga. We arrived two evenings before the recital, starved from the stingy flight (you even had to buy water) and gearing up for a busy couple of days of rehearsals. We tucked into a hearty dinner of tender chicken in bacon stuffed with plums and pickled vegetables, and meatballs flavored with caraway seeds and strong sauerkraut. Everyone else drank refreshing local beer, I sipped another favorite, kefir that was not too tangy but sweet and milky.
I was picked up early the next morning to rehearse just outside of the city center with the orchestra. I always feel such gratitude to perform, and especially rehearse with orchestra – there’s so much more give and take than with keyboard, and you get to explore the various timbres your voice is capable of matching, as your solo line forms a duet with the violas, the cellos, or the violins. I was excited, but I didn’t know that I would have the privilege of working with the fantastic Sinfonietta Riga and the Latvian Radio Choir, both of whom tour regularly and will be in New York this fall. They could also win awards for the best-looking musicians around, and so young! The choir spends most of its time singing contemporary music, but they quickly put together some brilliant Handel choruses. Here’s an excerpt I caught from rehearsal of a chorus from Solomon. I was filming from the balcony, which is why it looks so boxed in.
We were rehearsing in the Sinfonietta’s HQ in renovated factory buildings that have been repurposed as a cultural center:
After rehearsal it was back to town for lunch, a quick walk around the historic center, a rehearsal in the hall before the concert, and a quick nap before performing. I found that things generally moved slowly in Riga: there is no such thing as grabbing a quick bite, a meal generally took over an hour. I had heard that Riga is a beautiful little city, but I was surprised that it is as much of a tourist destination as it is. Tour groups of Germans caravan through the medieval cobble-stoned streets, inspecting the mostly Lutheran churches and the art nouveau district, the largest of its kind in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site. Because costs are lower than elsewhere in Northern Europe, its also a popular destination for Swedes and Finns to hold their bachelor parties. The larger outdoor cafes and packed with hordes of young men drinking beer and scoping the scene. For a Baltic country – with mercurial weather that can range from windy to rainy to balmy over the course of an hour, and a generally cold climate year round – the outdoor cafes are quite elaborate. Couches, hammocks, flowers, and herb gardens decorate most restaurants, and patrons sit outside with blankets on their shoulders when they wish to enjoy the sunshine but the chill won’t leave the air.
The recital went well! I was disappointed to learn that programs were available for a price, so therefore most of the audience did not have translations (which are pretty crucial to understanding text-reliant early Italian Baroque songs), but because the program was staged, people seemed to understand what I was trying to convey. I was exhilarated and relieved to finish, but when the audience kept clapping I realized that I hadn’t prepared a bis, which I suddenly remembered is customary in Europe. We jumped back to the stage for another rendering of Monteverdi’s Laudate, probably the most up-beat thing on the program but also the highest energy.
The next day was spent entirely at Rundale Palace, where we rehearsed at 10 in the morning for the gala concert, which was awkwardly scheduled for 10pm that evening. It gave us plenty of time to see the castle though, and the festival thought to reserve hotel rooms for the soloists to rest before the performance. I didn’t realize how much I would need it: perhaps because it was never dark for more than four hours at night, and we were occasionally awakened by bachelor revelers, we hadn’t slept well during our stay. After rehearsal I conked out for a good three hours.
The odd element to the concert was the costumes: although we weren’t staged, and the costumes they gave us had nothing to do with the music we were singing, the festival wanted to singers to wear Baroque-like costumes – including wigs and fans! The other soprano, the lively Inga Kalna, flat out refused to wear one, and I declined to be the only singer wearing a wig, but I was game to Disney it up a bit:
It was quite a long concert, a true Baroque bouquet of everything from Sarpantje to Hendelis to Persels to Ramo to Bahs and Gluks, if you can figure out who those composers are in the Latvian transliterations. It was still dusk when the music began at around 10 pm, when I noticed an enormous stork’s nest built on one of the palace’s turrets, with four enourmous storks keeping watch over the sunset. We finished after midnight with the Hallelujah chorus, just as thunder and rain started to roll in. The audience didn’t budge. Darkness fell, and the chorus sang Hallelujah around us, thunder answering like God’s fury during the grand pauses. We made our way back on the traffic clogged roads, subjected to the driver’s relantless thumping of Latvian pop on the radio, an unpleasantness that was repeated by the hotel clerk and the local bars as we sank into bed at 3AM. Then before we knew it it was back to the airport, with just enough time to bid Riga farewell.