Latvian Musicians in Canada

December 8, 2019

Music is the foundation of Latvian culture, beginning with folk songs and continuing with symphonies and opera and other forms of musical expression. Latvia, proportionally to its population, has produced a remarkable number of world-renowned musicians. Here I will look at those who arrived in Canada after WWII leaving their un-erasable musical footsteps and at others who followed in those footsteps.

Halifax was for many the place where Latvians took their first footsteps in Canada and where they began their professional musical careers on this side of the ocean. Opera singer Mariss Vētra (1901-1965) and family arrived in Halifax in January, 1947 and started teaching at the Maritime Academy of Music where he organized an opera course. At that time there was no opera theatre, nor even an orchestra. With his students, Vētra started giving concert performances of opera fragments.

On the 200th anniversary of Halifax in 1949, with the assistance of other musicians, Vētra and his students performed Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which was the very first opera performance in this city. Within the next three years they performed another five operas. Thus, with the assistance of the Nova Scotia Opera Association, Opera Nova Scotia was born. A few years later, Mariss Vētra moved to Toronto where he established his vocal studio and continued to teach singers.

Pianist Alfreds Štrombergs (1922-2006) arrived in Canada in 1948, a year after Mariss Vētra, and was his invaluable assistant. He taught at the Maritime Academy of Music, which later became the Maritime Conservatory for Performing Arts. In 1949, Štrombergs organized the Halifax Symphonette to accompany performances of the Nova Scotia Opera Association. This ensemble evolved to become the Halifax Symphony in 1957, and after merging with the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra became the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra.

This brings us to another Latvian musician, composer Jānis Kalniņš (1904-2000). Kalniņš immigrated to Canada in 1948, working initially as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s United Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

In 1951, Kalniņš took up two new appointments. The first was as Professor of Music at Fredericton’s Teachers’ College. By the time he retired from that position 20 years later, Professor Kalniņš had taught more than 700 students.

The second appointment was as conductor of the Fredericton Civic Orchestra. In 1959 he joined the Saint John’s Symphony Orchestra and was an important part in the evolution of this group into the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra in 1961. At that time Kalniņš was appointed its Principal Conductor.

On his 80th birthday, Dr. Kalniņš was honoured with a gala concert organized by Toronto’s Latvian community in recognition of his contribution to the development of music in Canada. Another concert in his honour took place in Chicago one week later, and a third tribute concert took place in New York the following month. As part of the year’s celebrations, President Ronald Reagan sent Dr. Kalniņš a congratulatory letter on October 19, 1984. In 1986, Mount Allison University created the Dr. Jānis Kalniņš Award in his honour.

Composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) came to Canada rather late – on November 18, 1981, from Paris, France; this same day, Latvia’s Day of Independence, became his first day as organist of St. Andrew’s Latvian Lutheran Congregation. In Ķeniņš’ own words: “We arrived in the morning of 18th November and right after breakfast were taken to St. Andrew’s Church. […] This was a very important event – the very first time a Latvian communal service was to commemorate Latvia’s independence in a newly acquired Latvian Church … and the first time its newly arrived organist sat at the huge organ”.*

In September of 1952, he joined the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto where he taught for the next thirty-two years. Among his students were two other noted Latvian musicians: composer Imants Ramiņš and pianist Arturs Ozoliņš.

Ķeniņš was also active in Latvian society as a composer and as an organizer of various musical events in Canada including the Latvian Song and Dance Festivals in Canada. This year, his son Juris Ķeniņš – cellist, composer, teacher – followed in his father’s footsteps as the Chair of the Board of the XV Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Canada.

Latvian Musical life in Canada is unimaginable without conductor and composer, Arvīds Purvs (1926-). After his arrival in Toronto from England in 1956, he took over the leadership of St. Andrew’s church choir (founded by Tālivaldis Ķeniņš) and conducted it for the next forty-two years. He also conducted the women’s choir Zīle for twenty-six years and the Latvian Baptist Choir for thirty years. As conductor and organizer, Arvīds Purvs was an invaluable part of the Latvian Song and Dance Festivals in exile in Canada, the USA, and Europe. After the declaration of Latvia’s regained Independence on May 4, 1990, Purvs conducted at the XX Latvian Song and X Dance Festival in Riga, Latvia. On October 29 of the same year, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed his Cantata “Toward the Light” (Pret gaismu, original Latvian text by Ingrida Vīksna, translated into English by Uldis Fogels). Purvs’ book Pa skanošu vasaru (Through Resounding Summer) is a lasting heritage of Latvian musicianship in exile.

Imants Ramiņš (1943-), the well-known Canadian composer, was born in Latvia. After spending some years in refugee camps in Germany after WWII, he came to Canada with his family in 1948. His life of music started first in Toronto as a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music and at the University of Toronto, continued at the Academie Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria and at the University of British Columbia.

Upon returning to Canada, he settled in British Columbia and there continued his musical career. He founded the Prince George Symphony, the Youth Symphony of the Okanagan, NOVA Children’s Choir and the AURA Chamber Choir.

Ramiņš has composed for many musical genres: solo voice, chamber music, choral music, symphonies, concertos, and operas. His music has been performed on six continents and in such famous places as Carnegie Hall and the Forbidden City. In 2017, the University of Toronto honoured him with a concert by student musicians, choirs and orchestras, who performed some of his most beloved pieces, including Latvian the folk song Pūt vējiņi (Blow Wind).

To celebrate both the legacy of Elmer Iseler, who had been Ramiņš professor at U of T, and Canada’s 150th anniversary year, the Elmer Iseler Singers commissioned Ramiņš to compose a large-scale work. Thus “The Beauty of Dissonance, the Beauty of Strength”, which runs over 40 minutes in eight movements, was born.

Conductor Ivars Tauriņš (1956-) grew up in Toronto and like many renowned musicians started musical activities early in life ¬– piano studies at age eight, violin at thirteen and during his final year at North Toronto Collegiate, viola studies. He continued his musical education at the Royal Conservatory of Music with orchestral and conductor training programs, continuing at the Conservatory of Music in The Hague, Netherlands, the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto.

Equally at home conducting symphonic and choral repertoire, Ivars Tauriņš is the founding director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, now in its 39th season and was also violinist with Tafelmusik orchestra. In 2002, Taurins paid homage to his Latvian roots by organizing a Christmas concert, Baltic Noel, featuring a number of Baltic choirs including the Latvian choir Dzirksts (“Spark”, conducted by Vizma Maksiņa) and Latvian/Canadian mezzo-soprano Vilma Indra Vitols. His annual performances of The Messiah, led by Tauriņš dressed as Herr Handel himself, are a hot ticket on the Toronto Christmas concert scene.

Gunta Dreifelds played an important role in the development of the revolutionary technology that fundamentally changed how we view and enjoy one of the richest musical expressions – opera. In 1983, Dreifelds was part of the Canadian Opera Company team which included General Director Lotfi Mansouri and Director of Operations John Leberg, who invented SURTITLES, thus making opera sung in foreign languages understood as never before. The first opera performed with SURTITLES was the COC’s production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra on January 21, 1983. Since then, SURTITLES have become part of opera performances world-wide. Gunta Dreifelds credits SURTITLES, at least in part, with an upsurge in opera attendance. At the Latvian National Opera in Riga, SURTITLES were first used in 2000.

Laura Adlers, Management Consultant, although not a professional musician herself, has done a great deal to introduce Latvian music and musicians to Canada by promoting special projects. One such project was organizing the Canadian premiere of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ composition Nordic Lights, a multi-media rendering of the aurora borealis, which was performed by the Orpheus Choir and Symphonic Orchestra on February 24, 2018. To quote the Latvian Ambassador to Canada, Kārlis Eihenbaums: “[she] … takes Latvian culture out of Latvian bounds.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia
Canadian Music Centre
“Janka” by Alfons Kalns,
*Starp divām pasaulēm (“Between Two Worlds”) pg. 53, by Ingrida Zemzare

Thank you to my editor Vilma Indra Vitols

Ženija Vitols
Director od Canadian Latvian Archive and Museum