Photography adventure is almost the everyday life of Ulrike Welsch. Read her story below.
While I write this I can still hear the beautiful songs that completely enraptured me during the magical journey that I recently experienced.
It all began this spring when deciding where I would go next! Already an avid and experienced world traveler, I like to go to places where I can discover their traditions, art, and, of course, music. I had never been to the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. After I had seen a piece on Youtube and learned that a significant Song and Dance Festival would be held this year in Riga, the capital of Latvia, I knew that I had found my destination!
Riga has the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition the Latvian Song and Dance festival, being one of the Baltic song festivals, has also been on UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list since 2008.
At first I had booked only an introductory, three-country, tour to get a better feel for this part of Northern Europe. For ten days I could fast-track important sites between Tallinn, capital of Estonia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania with Riga in Latvia in-between. I also early on reserved an apartment in Riga for eight nights so that I could attend the Song and Dance Festival there on my own. Purchasing tickets for the concerts was a bit of a challenge, due to the enormous interest, the size of the concerts and, of course, the seven hours time difference. But I did manage to obtain tickets for six different events which would still give me time to see more of the city, including its art.
2023 was the 150th anniversary of Latvia’s Song Festival that started in 1873 and is held every five years. The Dance Festival was added in 1948. Even during the Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1991 the festivals were held, but they were heavily influenced by Soviet ideology. Latvia has a very turbulent history.
Latvian is a Baltic language, also known as Lettish. According to Wikipedia Lettish is an Eastern Baltic language belonging to the Indo-European language family. It is a rather difficult language. But I found many English speaking people. English is taught in school as a second language choice. All I learned was Paldies, which is “Thank-You” in Latvian. Fortunately, most menus were written in both languages.
The song and dance events were performed in varied venues according to the size needed. The Riga Dome, The Latvian National Opera House, The Russian Theater, Hanzas Perons (modernized former warehouse), Daugava Stadium, Mezaparks and more.
At the modernized Mezaparks, which is in the midst of a forest, 17,296 singers sang with up to 50,000 concert-goers in the audience at the ‘Finale’. (I only could capture a ticket for the rehearsal 35,000 audience). It was a four hour outdoor concert. What great feeling it was in-midst of so many people and hearing a choir so powerful and large. It did not matter to me that I could not understand a word they were singing, I absorbed the feeling. It is the music, the power of the voices and melodies which touched my soul. I found translations afterwards. The words spoke of Latvian history, Legends, Courland, Daugava, the River of Fate, the Land of Amber, the Castle of Light, to my Homeland and Blow Ye Wind. The instrumental part and soloists contributed to the beauty of this so well directed event.
At the Daugava Stadium I saw 17,543 dancers with 10,000 attendees. To see this multitude of dancers all together waltzing, spinning, jumping and dancing in formation was truly astounding. Some dances reminded me of German dances, some required excellent agility and coordination. The dances looked easy and fun, but the participants had to be in full control of their body. Choreography at its best.
These big events started with a ceremonial procession with a historic festival flag followed by conductors and/or choreographers, who later, while following the program, were specifically introduced and, in the end, presented with flowers and kisses. At the biggest final concert the newly elected President of Latvia gave a short speech. Participants wore traditional costumes according to their ethnic origin or group. Most women wore a natural wreath, some intricate crowns or shawls and caps, as well as some fascinating vintage jewelry. Latvia, by the way, is a country of many ethnic minorities: the largest being Russian at 25.6%, Belarusians, 3.4%, Ukrainians, 2.3%; Poles, Roma, Germans, Estonians, Lithuanians, Jew and Livonians.
I also saw and heard the very traditional Latvian Kokle instruments in the Cathedral of Riga. This church is known for its pipe organ as well as its acoustics. The last piece on the program was the Chorus accompanied by both this illustrious pipe organ and the zither-like Kokle together. The sound was just beautiful!
Ethnic minorities, some of which I mentioned, sang and danced at the Russian Theater. What colorful clothing they wore! My seat was in the second row, and, as a surprise to me, next to the huge Latvian TV camera! Without realizing this, I had purchased a ticket for a spectacular seat way back at home in Marblehead in May at 3 AM in the morning! No-body sat in front of me. My photographer's eyes were smiling, indeed.
The furthest participating groups traveled from Australia. Boston was represented as well as New York and Michigan; the oldest were 96 , (2), the youngest one year (5).
During free days I wandered through the cobblestone streets of the Old Town as well as to the Esplanade and Vērmanes Parks that reminded me of Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Small stages were set up with free dance and musical performances. Local food was grilled along with blood sausage, potatoes, pork-snouts and cabbage. In between, were craft tents with abundant amber and woolens for sale. In the streets small groups taught visitors traditional folk-dancing, or they sang. The parks are huge and beautifully landscaped, considering that the outdoor season is short. Latvians take pride in their city. I was amazed at the cleanliness of it all! Actually all three Baltic States amazed me. I always felt safe, even in a sardine-can-like, packed tram after the big concert at Mezaparks. In truth, it was a ‘singing tram’!
I walked a lot, and took the tram only when going to big events further out. Street blocks are short. In town I also explored the Art Nouveau district near the Radisson Blu Hotel. Latvia’s capital has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world, with fascinating facades with sculptured organic shapes and sensual ornamentation. I visited several museums: The Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga’s Art Nouveau Centre and the, so-called, “Black Head” House and also the nave of the Romanesque Riga Cathedral, and took the elevator up the 405 foot tower of St Peter’s Church from which I could view the whole city. All these places had very affordable entrance fees. I also traveled to a near-by resort Jurmala, at the Gulf of Riga per commuter train, just short of thirty minutes for under $ 4.00. There I enjoyed shallow waves and endless white beaches.
it was a magnificent experience that I would love to repeat. My ears still ring with the memories. Summer is the ideal time to travel to those northern countries. Away from the big cities much history can be learned in smaller charming towns, where nature lurks with endless white beaches, ancient forests, grain-fields, lakes and marshes in between. Estonia and Lithuania will have their song festivals in 2024. Perhaps next year! It was a wonderful experience to meet and see a proud and sensible people, who love to sing and dance; who follow their generational traditions; who are very much united in their progressive countries. It is only thirty three years since they have been freed from the Soviet choke. Songs gave them strength. They were all part of the “Baltic Way”; that human chain that has become a “Singing Revolution”.
Ulrike Welsch © 2023