Friday, August 7, 2015

Eleventh Latvian School Youth Song and Dance Festival in Rīga

Sākumā ir burts, pēc tam zilbe, un zilbes veido vārdus. Vārdi, ko apbur mūzika, kļūst par dziesmām, bet raiti ritot rotaļīgā ritmā, dziesma pārtop par deju. (Source here)

It was more than 150 years ago that Reverend J. Neikens organized the song days in the birch grove near the manse in Dikļi in which about 120 schoolchildren participated. A couple of years later in 1866 the first official childrens’ song festival was held in Praulienes township, and in the historic 1873 first-ever Latvian song and dance festival there were many school-age participants. However it was in Soviet times that the first official school youth song and dance festival took place. A total of 8,359 singers and 1,200 dancers from 178 schools partook in the event in 1960, and over the years it has grown and evolved to be the largest festival in Latvia to involve children, youth culture and art.

Held every five years, the festival features choirs, dance collectives, brass bands, small musical collectives, folk music ensembles, collectives of visual and applied arts & theatre art, and youth folklore groups. In 2003 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization proclaimed the tradition, symbolism, and uniqueness of the song and dance festivals in the Baltics a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’, and the Tenth Latvian School Youth Song Festival in 2010 had a total of 30,975 participants from 1,305 collectives.

This year approximately 37,000 children and youth from all over Latvia participated in the Eleventh Latvian School Youth Song and Dance Festival in Rīga, in a weeklong extravaganza that featured everything from traditional concerts to theater productions and the artisan fair Burtiski burvīgs burziņš in Vērmanes dārzs. There were pop-up street concerts, modern dance exhibitions and a fashion show of folk costumes, and then the wide assortment of unofficial events that had been scheduled to coincide with the festival: museum exhibit openings, art shows and rock concerts.

The week culminated with a parade and final concert. Sunday morning there was much confusion as the parade of participants had officially been cancelled, although through word of mouth we learned that an ‘unofficial parade’ was taking place. It’s hard for the spectators to understand the scope of preparation required to put on an event of this scale, and as with any happening of this magnitude, there were bound to be hiccups. Sadly, it was a rather serious incident at the rehearsal for the final concert that marred the festival; as the rehearsal neared its end, dozens of children fainted from exhaustion, overwhelming the first aid resources on location. Only a few were actually hospitalized, and all were released in short order, but the episode raised serious questions on the extreme strain the children are under during the week of the festival: extremely long days filled with hours of practice, hot summer weather, irregular mealtimes and interrupted sleep as many of the participants traveled from other cities and were housed dormitory-style in schools and public buildings. The rehearsal was subsequently cancelled and an orderly evacuation ensued, but the momentary chaos as panicked students fed off of one another’s hysteria prompted officials to cancel the parade the following morning, supposedly allowing for participants to rest before the final concert. (Although up to 500 children required some sort of first aid, reports indicate that 50 children fainted, the majority of the 450 requiring only band-aids or water bottles.)

As participating in the parade is a point of pride for each choir and collective, it was not surprising that many chose to ignore the official cancellation, and an unorganized stream of groups filled Brīvības Street for many hours Sunday morning. It seemed as if the only result of the pronouncement was to keep spectators away, although as the morning progressed the crowd grew as news of the unofficial parade spread. Traffic in front of the Freedom Monument remained steady as participants left flowers and took pictures.

We headed to Mežaparks for the final concert, where a total of 12,500 would participate in a three hour showcase of Latvian song. Spectators numbered around 66,600, and the atmosphere was electric. No trace of the morning’s tensions remained, although the repertoire was supposedly cut short to keep the concert at a reasonable length. I was once more relegated to the periphery with Vilis in the stroller, much as I had been with Mikus two years ago at the final concert of the XXV Latvian National Song Festival. However even with the additional distance from the stage I was still in the thick of things, with performers rushing by to and from the stage, and enveloped by the sound of 12,000 voices singing as one.

The song festival is over, the children having returned to their hometowns to prepare for school to restart in the fall. We’re back in the US, busy with end of summer tasks and after-vacation chores. Yet, the last notes still echo – in the songs the boys are singing while at play in the yard, in our memories of our weeks in Latvia, in our hearts full of wonder and pride at the heritage we have been bestowed. May the reverberations never cease.

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