Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds pays homage to his first muse — Whitney Houston

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds will be in Ottawa to lead a choral workshop and program of his music on Wednesday.

Ēriks Ešenvalds was 11 years old in 1988. The young Latvian was a budding composer at the time when he heard his first true muse.

“I was singing at school and playing the piano. That’s when I heard Whitney Houston. I just loved her songs. At that time we couldn’t get the sheet music for her songs. We saw her on TV and heard her through cassette tapes. I learned her songs by listening to her.”

Houston’s songs were simply constructed and that surprised, intrigued and inspired the young Ēriks on his own musical journey.

“I certainly should say (a posthumous) thank you to her for being such an inspiration in my musical career.”

He was very affected, he said, by the natural flow of harmonies in Houston’s songs.

“It attracted me very deeply.” Inspiration comes from everywhere, he said in an interview.

For Ešenvalds, “harmony is the priority and the melody is secondary.” Even though his music can be wonderfully melodic.

The Latvian is today one of a strong group of composers from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (Arvo Part would perhaps be the best known) stepping on to the world stage. He is in Ottawa on Wednesday to lead a workshop with singers and be present at a performance of some of his pieces by the Capital Chamber Choir.

As a thoughtful student, Ešenvalds explained the success of Baltic music this way.

“If we look back specifically in Baltic region, we have had this historical heritage. As small nations, we have been ruled by our neighbours — Sweden, Germany and Russia — for centuries. They affected our culture. We have (in our music) Scandinavian lightness, with whistling tones for tenors and sopranos, the powerful German choral sound and the Russian orthodox basso-profundo.”

These musical colours have been absorbed and deployed in a new way by Baltic composers, especially those who wrote choral music. As well, Baltic composers were influenced by the wave of interest in folk music and traditions that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Step by step, year by year, this musical evolution became something larger, he says.

That musical melting pot has been coupled with considerable national pride.

“I can mention here the Singing Revolution,” which swept the Baltic states as the Soviet Union was crumbling.

Ešenvalds was 14 when Latvia emerged from Soviet rule.

“I also remember the day when Gorbachev was toppled in 1991 and Soviet Union fell apart. There were three terrifying days. Step by step, the Baltic leaders spoke more loudly and the people followed them.”

It has meant a new openness, he said, in all fields.

“For 50 years we had been in stagnation. There had been no development except for roads and bridges. We had forbidden songs and poems and we kept them alive in whispers. When the regime became weaker we could speak out.”

Ešenvalds graduated from high school but the economy was weak at the time and his parents wanted him to take something more practical. So he enrolled in psychology at university. It was new profession in his country. “In the Soviet Union, people didn’t have a soul supposedly.”

After a month he quit.

“I felt it was not my calling and just then the music started to come out of me so powerfully.” After a year of waiting he enrolled in music studies and the rest as they say is history.

Ešenvalds has a deep faith.

“I’m a Baptist. When Latvia became free, there was such emptiness suddenly. For 50 years my parents were ordinary Soviet citizens. My mother was a music teacher and my father was an ambulance driver. they lived ordinary life. But when Latvia became free the churches were open suddenly — Lutheran, Baptist, Russian Orthodox and Catholic — and they were crowded for people. The nation was thirsty for something higher than Communist ideology.”

He, too, joined the rush to the church. “Thank God, he accepted me. The church gives you wonderful values,” he says, whether  as a religious person or as a way to live a good life.

“For a teenager, that was very powerful step in my life.”

Ešenvalds may be best known as a choral composer, but he has written all sorts of music from symphonies to the most avant-garde material.

“I have written so many songs for choir because the choirs have been the most active commissioners. In Latvia, we have a lot of choirs. Every village has their own amateur choir.

“They heard my first songs and started to commission me. It became my daily job. But I hate when someone calls me a choral composer only. I’m fully equipped to be a classical music composer. I love to write for symphony orchestra. I love to write for crazy avant-garde festivals. I have written electronic music. I have written two operas.”

In fact, his visit to Canada started in Toronto where, with the help of the Orpheus Choir, his spectacular Nordic Light,  a  multimedia symphonic piece was performed.

Nordic Light is about the aurora borealis. The piece took him the better part of four years to complete. To research it, he travelled to places where the aurora can be seen. He met with Indigenous peoples and heard and filmed their stories. That film accompanies his music. In all 22 storytellers participated.

A documentary has also been made about Ešenvalds’ journey.

The project was originally supposed to have been a series of short pieces about the aurora, but once Ešenvalds actually saw one for the first time the “impression was unbelievable.” To speak about the power of the aurora in music, Ešenvalds said, “you have speak about it with the largest musical forces: orchestra, choir, some electronics and some multimedia.” His original sponsor bailed out on the project Ešenvalds finished it on his own dime.

His choral music is well known however. One recent recording with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge called Northern Lights & other choral works (Hyperion Records, 2015) was a Gramophone Critics’ Choice in 2015 and an ICI Radio-Canada Best Albums Selection that same year.

Much of that music features a text from the early 20th century American poet Sara Teasdale, including one of his best known choral piece Stars. He likes Teasdale’s poetry because it flows musically. He said he’s tried using work by Emily Dickenson, but it was too abrupt. Teasdale’s words also have a melancholy feeling that appeals to Ešenvalds. Teasdale killed herself in 1933.

In Ottawa he’ll be bringing his thoughts about choral music with him

“I like talking about choral music with amateurs. The main thing I ask of singers is: Please be flexible. Composers cannot write every detail in the score. I’m always interested in sharing what, for example, I have meant in this system or that bar.

He also encourages choristers to be open to more than one style of singing.

A Choral Encounter with Ēriks Ešenvalds
When: Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.
Where: St. Joseph’s Parish, Sandy Hill
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.