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October 28, 1997

Modern Composers[Music of Peteris] Vasks. Musica Dolorosa for String Orchestra; Cantabile for String Orchestra; Lauda; Voices: Symphony for String Orchestra. I Fiamminghi -- The Orchestra of Flanders, Rudolf Werthen, conductor. (Telarc CD # 80457) 1997.

Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) is not just a composer who coincidentally happens to have been born in Latvia - he considers himself first and foremost a Latvian composer, and that strong nationalism is evident in all his work.

The modern history of Latvia has been one of domination and subjugation -- by Germany and the Soviet Union in recent times but also by Sweden, Poland, and pre-Soviet Russia. Largely because of this history, the musical culture of Latvia has been limited to native folk song and dance. Vasks is one of the first, and certainly the most prominent, Latvian composers of symphonic music to become known outside that country. Vasks attended the Riga Music School, played with the Latvian State Philharmonic, and since 1978 has worked full-time as a composer in Riga.

In a 1994 interview, Vasks said he thinks "it is very important that a musician speaks in his own native language through sound.... For me what is important is to speak as a representative of a very small, unhappy but courageous country.... In my music, I speak Latvian." On this new album from Telarc, he speaks expressively on a number of different topics.

Vasks describes Lauda, one of his largest works for orchestra, as "a tribute to my people." He says the title comes from Psalm 150: "Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius" (Praise God in his holiness). The work as described in the liner notes "begins with a spacious introduction whose winding melodic lines and tolling bells evoke the Medieval chapel. These lines are then woven together contrapuntally, in the nature of a solemn Renaissance motet, and gather intensity as they pass from the strings to the winds and brass. The full orchestra mounts a climax, which is capped by a processional rhythm beaten out by the timpani. The music quiets before bell-like sonorities usher in striding phrases in the horns and winds, which are placed against a broad, hymn-like strain in the strings. Temple blocks and tuned percussion provide the gateway for a dancing episode which grows from a folkish melody initiated by the woodwinds. Lauda reaches its peak of expressive intensity with the majestic, sweeping passage for full orchestra which follows. Calm returns, and short, reflective phrases are discussed by the woodwinds above a cushion of sustained string chords before the winding contrapuntal lines of the opening are recalled to bring Laude to an ethereal, transcendent close.

You can hear Lauda by Peteris Vasks on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, November 6 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

- J. Green


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