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Latvian Singers, Conductors Stealing Global Spotlight, Thanks To Soviet Legacy

Latvia's Andris Nelsons is the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

They're young, they're Latvian, and together they are turning their tiny Baltic nation into a musical superpower.

As a new opera season approaches, Latvian musicians are set to continue their remarkable run on the global stage.

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca will appear at several of the world's most prestigious venues, including New York's Metropolitan Opera and Opera National de Paris. So will her soprano colleagues Kristine Opolais and Marina Rebeka, who will perform lead roles at the Met as well as London's Royal Opera House, the Vienna State Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera.

Conductor Andris Nelsons, meanwhile, has just extended his contract as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His widely admired fellow conductor Mariss Jansons, in turn, leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

"There was only one good thing the Soviets gave Latvia, and it was specialist music schools," says Ivars Cinkuss, director of the Rigas Tehniskas Universitates Viru Koris Gaudeamus choir, which won a Champion's title at last year's World Choir Games. "In a way, our large number of top musicians is a direct result of the Soviet system."

Cinkuss not only conducts young male singers who have benefited from that musical education; he's a product of it himself. Like thousands of other Latvian children, Cinkuss, 46, attended a specialist elementary school for musically talented children, followed by a specialist music high school.

Mariss Jansons leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Mariss Jansons leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The idea was to prepare students for professional music careers, and at each stage those who qualified were trained not just on their instrument but in music theory, music history, and ensemble performance.

Children who preferred a generalist school could opt instead to attend intensive afternoon music schools. Several schools -- including the Riga Dom Choir School -- continue the specialist tradition the Soviet Union left behind.

"Without attending a music school as a child, I would not have become a composer," says Eriks Esenvalds, a 38-year-old Latvian whose music is performed worldwide. "For a composer, having excellent instrumental skills is crucial, and that's something I have thanks to having attended a specialist music school."

Latvian law gives every citizen the right to music education. And today, as in Soviet times, the government generously subsidizes children's musical education.

"The special thing about the Riga Dom Choir School is that most of the lessons take place either in small groups or completely individually," says Zane Stafecka, a member of the vocal group Latvian Voices. "As a result, every pupil has very close relationships with his teachers, gets special attention, and at the same time also gets more responsibility."

Latvian Voices
Latvian Voices

Two of Latvian Voices' five other members are also Riga Dom Choir School graduates. And Garanca, Opolais, Rebeka, and Nelsons attended specialist music schools as well.

"Latvia is quite phenomenal, with an outstanding choir tradition and choirs," says London's leading musical impresario, Jasper Parrott. He attributes the success of Latvian musicians not only to their grounding in the Soviet training methods but also to their country's ability to improve upon the system by drawing on and adding uniquely Latvian cultural elements.

What the Latvians did entirely without assistance from Moscow -- in fact, in defiance of Soviet diktats -- was build a choral culture based on Latvian folk songs. Since 1873, Latvians have held gigantic song festivals featuring plenty of folk songs, usually every five years.

"In 1873, Latvia still didn't exist as a country, so the song festivals are older than the country itself," notes Esenvalds. "And because Latvia has been ruled by larger neighbors for so much of its history, folk songs became a very important heritage that held people together."

Though Soviet leaders frowned on such nationalist expressions, and forced the Song Festival (renamed the Song and Dance Festival in the 1940s) to include odes to the Soviet Union, they didn't dare ban it.

Indeed, the Song and Dance Festival became a hub of somewhat subversive Latvian artistic expression. In the 1970s, several leading Latvian conductors and composers turned their attention to Latvian folk songs and set them to modern arrangements, creating a repertoire that turbo-charged Latvians' interest in choral singing.

WATCH: Elina Garanca sings Carmen at the Metropolitian Opera

Ambitious conductors started new choirs, and following Latvia's Singing Revolution that led to its re-independence in 1991, the number grew further. Today Latvia's youth choirs -- many of which specialize in highly challenging repertoire -- are considered among the world's best, and gaining admission to one of them is extremely competitive.

At the 2014 World Choir Games, Latvia won more gold medals than any other country. China finished second, followed by Russia, the United States, and Indonesia. The latter countries all have populations of more than 100 million, whereas Latvia has only about 2 million citizens.

The Song and Dance Festival (often referred to in English as the Song and Dance Celebration), featuring over 30,000 participants, continues to this day, and since Latvia's independence has focused exclusively on Latvian music. The most recent festival was held in 2013; the next one will be held in 2018.

A newer youth song festival is flourishing, too. But many musicians worry that Latvia is resting on its laurels.

"Our musical elite is always telling the politicians that our large number of top musicians is a direct result of government commitment to music in public education," says Cincuss. "If the government cuts its funding, as some politicians suggest it should, in 50 years we won't have many top musicians."

Indeed, the government’s musical largesse enters into public debate every now and then. But fortunately for budding Latvian musicians, no political party has seriously proposed cutting back on the country's successful investment in music education.