Wednesday, July 4, 2018
Riga, Latvia. 30th June to the 8th of July
This is the 26th Song Festival since Latvian massed choirs have gathered to sing in the capital, Riga, at 5 yearly intervals since 1873.
Formally known as the 26th Latvian Song, and 16th Dance Celebration 2018, the original Song Festival has evolved to also include a grand dance spectacular and is now a 7-day festival of 65 events that include choirs, dance ensembles, brass bands, kokle players, folk musicians, vocal ensembles, folklore ensembles and symphonic music. An exhibition of Latvian folk costume and applied art as well as amateur theatre performances are all part of the time-tested formula of the event.
Participants from 118 Latvian municipalities all over the country as well as from many other countries where the Latvian diaspora (now about 16% of the total population) resides, like the USA, Norway, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Estonia, Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg, Denmark, Austria, France and Russia come to 43 000 in total; and they all marched, singing and dancing through Riga in a grand procession on the 1st of July that lasted 7 hours and stretched for 22 kms.
500 000 spectators will see this unique cultural phenomenon over 7 days. That is roughly ¼ of the Latvian population—1,96 million. These are the elements that have earnt the event its inclusion in the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Despite the rich treasure trove of Latvia’s 1.2 million folksongs (dainas), from the outset, the repertoire has never been a simple “folk fest”. Great Latvian classical composers as well as contemporary stars like Vasks, Maskats, Ešenvalds and Brauns have risen to the challenge of re-imagining folk creations as well as felt the irresistible pull of having their music sung by 16,500 voices. Enthusiasm and dedication (clearly the life blood of the entire movement) is not enough to ensure participation. Each choir and dance group from the smallest village to the star performers, is subjected to rigorous rounds of competitive heats to earn their chance to perform.
The theme of the closing concert (8th July) is a cosmic journey through destiny, history, nature and family that ends with a return home along the Milky Way. It may sound like too much pathos, but it’s a very special kind of emotion, refined yet overwhelming at the same time, that only the Latvians can genuinely pull off. It’s what the Singing Revolution was about.
The grand dance spectacular (6th and 7th July) is somewhat more literal. In the spirit of Latvia’s centenary, it will “dance” the history of Latvia from its Baltic tribe beginnings to independence gained and regained, through kaleidoscopic patterns, music, rhythm and colour.
So big, so all encompassing, why does the world know so little about it? Perhaps it’s because it’s a national cultural vaccination that’s administered every 5 years as the vital life force of the Latvian nation, perhaps it’s the reason why Latvia punches above its weight on the international classical music scene and perhaps it’s because the more than 100,000 total tickets available were sold out in just a few hours back in early March.
Nevertheless, there are 44 free events in the parks and gardens all week that will keep Riga pulsating with music, dancing, flowers, goodwill and happy faces charging the national batteries for next 5 years and probably the next century.