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Singing across the Sea: UW Music Department strengthens ties to the Baltic

More than 1 million spectators watched the festival events in person or on television

November 14, 2013

By Indra Ekmanis

DZ SVOn July 7, 40 University of Washington choral students stood 5,000 miles from home surrounded by a 15,000 member choir singing patriotic songs in an obscure Baltic language. The UW delegation was one of only two non-Latvian choirs to participate in the Latvian cultural event of the decade, the XXV National Song and XV Dance Festival (Dziesmu un deju svetki) in Riga, Latvia. How did they find themselves in a country with a population of 2 million on the Baltic Sea? Their fellow singers wanted to know, as well.

“The question that just kept resurfacing was, ‘Why? Why would you do this?’” says Johann Van Niekerk, a doctoral student in the Department of Music. “I would risk to say that there was a kind of gratitude or humility that came after they heard our answer, which was, ‘Well, your culture is unique and valuable and precious, and your language is unique and valuable and precious. And we really respect and admire it. It’s really inspirational to us.’”

Song and dance festivals take place on five-year rotations in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. UNESCO recognized the Baltic song festivals as cultural treasures in 2008, but the Baltic tradition extends from the mid-1800s. It was a powerful factor in the movement to regain independence from the USSR, a fight often referred to as the Singing Revolution. “In places of the world that are crossroads, where cultures collide, where governments overtake and war back and forth, the song becomes much more important, it is in part life story, in part rebellion, it is identity through oppression,” says Geoffrey Boers, the Director of Choral Studies at UW.


More than 1 million spectators watched the festival events in person or on television.

The singing tradition in the Baltics may span centuries, but the connection between UW and Baltic music has also developed into a strong relationship. Before performing in the festival the choir took a tour through all three Baltic countries, performing along the way. “The UW and the Baltic countries are closely linked,” Boers says. “The UW is the only institution in the US that teaches ongoing studies in all three Baltic languages, and the head of that program, Guntis Šmidchens, is highly regarded there. When I first came to the UW, Guntis contacted me to see if the choir might sing at a Scandinavian studies event, and the relationship was born. We have been over to the region five times, and have met many fine musicians.”

The UW choir was invited to participate in this summer’s song festival by the artistic concert director for the festival, Ivars Cinkuss. Cinkuss has made several trips to UW, once in January to coach the choir before their trip and recently in October as part of a tour with his folk group TRIO Šmite Kārkle Cinkuss, during which several master classes were available to music students. (See TRIO perform at UW here.)

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TRIO performs at UW in Brechemin Auditorium.

“I truly value these students interest in the culture of a different nation,” Cinkuss says. “I see a real attitude, a real interest, a common denominator, that they are all able to analyze the differences between American culture and Latvian culture. Between European culture and American culture, between an ancient culture and a very new culture that is American culture.”

Heather Garbes, who earned her PhD in Musical Arts from the University in 2008, is currently working on post-doctoral research on Baltic choral traditions. She has found the relationship between UW and Baltic musicians very valuable, both personally and for students in general.

“Having Cinkuss visit in January really helped students feel more connected to the culture and also helped them connect more to what the festival was going to be like,” Garbes says. “The October visit was such a different genre and I hoped that the students that were able to experience both visits were able to see the varied styles of music (both called folk in a general term in some cases) that are part of the Latvian cultural tradition.”

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Cinkuss speaks with Boers and Garbes.

Garbes is also the artistic director and founder of the Mägi Ensemble, an eight voice professional group that focuses on Baltic choral music. The Mägi Ensemble has two upcoming performances this Friday and Saturday in Capitol Hill and Edmonds.

Van Niekerk says he was impressed with Cinkuss’ sincerity towards UW students. “The authenticity of just standing in front of people and saying, ‘this is my culture, let me share it with you’ [was remarkable],” Van Niekerk says. “My first introduction to him was getting out of a car in the parade in the middle of Riga with people throwing flowers at him. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, this is a big-shot, [a] beloved man.’”

While he has focused his dissertation research on music from the Baltics, Van Niekerk says that other students who have been not as invested in the region were similarly swept up by the festival. “This was very emotional for the choir members, there were moments of recognition, of cognition that this is so big,” Van Niekerk says. “When music from the song festival shows up on [my colleagues’] iPod there’s just that moment of ‘ah’, unashamed sentimentality and nostalgia. … [The feeling was] brought home by the TRIO concert. So many of the remarks were, ‘I didn’t understand the language, but I felt it.’”


The official finale concert lasted from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m., then continued into the dawn as spectators joined in the singing.

Cinkuss says he also felt the connection with UW students, both in his visits to the University and at the festival. “Credit is due to Geoffrey Boers and Giselle [Wyers], but to see how the entire [UW] choir participated in the Latvian Song Festival … Of course, they are professionals, they don’t have any problems learning the repertoire, but still — learning the language, feeling the emotion. They were ready to join in with Latvians — with amateurs from a completely foreign nation — for a six-hour long concert, and they were completely excited.” Cinkuss says. “I, myself, am excited that we have perhaps opened a new world for them. They have found and realized that the world can be colorful, interesting and that there is much in the world that is worth discovering. And if that has happened through Latvia and Latvian culture — that is doubly exciting for me.”

To get a taste of Baltic music, join the Mägi Ensemble for their concert Ester Pēteris Vytautas this Friday and Saturday.

Friday, November 15
7:00 p.m.
Thomsen Chapel at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill
1245 Tenth Avenue East
Seattle, WA 98102

Saturday, November 16
7:30 p.m.
Maplewood Presbyterian Church in Edmonds
19523 84th Ave W, Edmonds, WA 98026