The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra (LNSO) is one of the cornerstones of Latvian culture – the animator of achievements in musical creativity, keeper and polisher of classical treasures and a source of thoughtful relaxation. Sonorous, balanced and multicoloured – that is the LNSO today. Its composition has been noticeably renewed with many new musicians; the intensity of playing together, musical activity and joy has increased. The prestige of the orchestra has undoubtedly grown as has its importance in cultural life and its significance in the country’s great range of events, festivals and projects. The orchestra’s path of development has not always been smooth, even and constant. However, with Riga being awarded the status of European Capital of Culture in 2014, the ensemble is prepared and eagerly awaiting next year; it has matured yet is fresh, creative and full of energy.
Professional music making as well as orchestral playing in Latvia grew up under the influence of German culture. However, already at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit most often in the case of short-lived local and a motley string of visiting orchestras, the composition was international and so it is today. What is important is the ability to play together, the skill to come together in a unified sound, its own sound, which cannot be expressed in words but is recognisable to any competent listener – its unique timbre, playing style, the ability to listen to and sense one’s partners.
And here, of course, is one more component – the orchestra’s conductor, its leader. This is actually a question of the knife blade and the handle; one is useless without the other and results come only when they are united. If the collaboration is placid, moderate and with little interest, then the outcome is usually tepid. But there is yet another component and just as important as the ones already mentioned. This is the public, a body of faithful listeners that accepts and supports its own but does not forgive sloppiness, empty and cold musicianship. One might think it goes without saying that all these elements must come together as a whole. We can train our musicians in the finest foreign music schools, we can buy famous and talented guest conductors (and they have indeed often managed to pull the orchestra onto a higher level), we can increase the salaries of the musicians and the whole orchestra staff (and we must!) but all that will come to nothing if it is not done in a proportionate, balanced and harmonious way.
The LNSO was founded in 1926 as the Latvian Radio Symphony Orchestra and this saw the beginning of systematic and sustained work. Moreover, the orchestra’s live transmissions covered practically the whole of the new Latvian state. Of course we shouldn’t exaggerate – the broadcasts were not long and there were few owners of wireless sets (a radio was a luxury item then; many people had never heard a concert by a symphony orchestra before – just like today...). Gradually, in a few decades, the Radio Orchestra became the main attraction – an example and source of inspiration, a standard and yardstick. The orchestra’s concerts were attended or heard on the air by many writers, artists, composers, politicians, physicians, journalists (many concerts had up to 10–15 reviews), high-ranking officials and military persons. Furthermore, in the 1930s, the orchestra performed a whole series of important new works by Latvian composers establishing this tradition as the orchestra’s mission.
The orchestra’s first conductor was Arvīds Pārups who was joined later by a diversity of other conductors regardless of the formal differences in their status including Teodors Reiters, Jānis Mediņš and Leonīds Vīgners. In the years following the war, despite the initially quite crippled and deformed repertoire policy, the orchestra even managed to get state support (as a mouthpiece for propaganda), and the conductors together with some of the Latvian Radio management created the possibility to gradually free themselves from the dross and ideological demands. The explosive and colourful personality of Leonīds Vīgners stood out especially (chief conductor 1949–1963 and 1966–1975). Many of the concerts he conducted created a true furore, setting both orchestra and public alight in genuine flames of art. (The performance of Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy became a kind of visiting card and a pass to the major concert stages of the Soviet Union.) Edgars Tons’ time as chief conductor was short (1963–1966) but brilliant and richly creative. The invitation of Vassily Sinaisky (1975–1987) brought new breath, musical gravitas and greatness. This charismatic and well-educated musician (alongside conducting, he had also studied the piano and musicology) integrated smoothly into the orchestra’s best traditions often creating real music festivals for everyone (including expansive vocal-symphonic compositions as well as the great works of Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler). In addition, Sinaisky was responsible for introducing many, many Latvian works to the concert scene, primarily the monumental symphonies of Jānis Ivanovs. On the best occasions he really did “set fire” to the orchestra and audience.
For several years the chief conductors were imported musicians. Paul Mägi (1990–1994) brought intelligence and demanded much from the orchestra. To a certain extent this was continued by the work of Olari Elts (2001–2006) that stood out with the diversity of programmes, sophisticated musicianship and restrained elegance. A major turn and a leap in quality was seen only when Karel Mark Chichon took over the reins in 2009 having worked with the orchestra before on several occasions. He left the position of chief conductor in 2012 but did conduct the end of the 2012/2013 season concert. As leader of the orchestra Chichon was considerate, low-key but demanding, even to the extent of being picky. However, this resulted in a slow but even improvement in the orchestra’s ensemble playing that reached a level of freedom and uplift in the performance that earlier had been witnessed only on rare occasions. Moreover, the allure of Chichon’s personality, his complete devotion to music-making resulted in a rapid increase in the number of concert goers. The public accepted and awaited the conductor. A special facet of Chicon’s activities were the concert performances of operas for which the conductor could freely choose his favourite artists from different countries. These performances usually turned into grandiose music festivals.
From October 2013 the chief conductor of the LNSO is Andris Poga.