Composer in Focus: Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvia
Bethany Plissey, VT-ACDA, R & S Chair for College & University
When was the last time you were truly mesmerized by a live performance of a stunning choral composition? It is difficult for me to admit that I don’t make it to many live performances here at home in Vermont, but with the arrival of November’s Choral Journal, I was reminded of my last utopian choral experience as an audience member at the ACDA National Convention in March. This month’s edition has a great article by Vance Wolverton detailing the content of the twelve volumes of the Latvian Choral Anthology (LCA). Latvia’s rich choral culture and song festival tradition have produced numerous gifted conductors, choirs, and composers. The LCA preserves the most significant representative choral compositions of the culture from around 1873 to 2000, but there has continued to be an outpour of exciting repertoire coming from Latvian composers since the turn of the millennium. I’m wondering if a thirteenth volume will be published, and am hoping it will contain some of the works of Ēriks Ešenvalds.
There was no mention of Ešenvalds in the LCA article. Why would there be; after all, in 2000 he was merely 23, working toward his Bachelors at the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, and not yet an icon of the Latvian choral scene. Still, this article reminded me of Riga, where I was blessed to spend part of January and February of 2008 interviewing conductors and hearing their choirs. It was also the first time I was introduced to the work of Ēriks Ešenvalds by Māris Sirmais, founder and former conductor of Youth Choir Kamēr, and current conductor of the State Choir Latvija. Kamēr had recently produced a recording titled Veltījumi (recorded 2007) that included three compositions by Ēriks. Composers can benefit when well known conductors promote their work, and Sirmais is a true champion of Ešenvalds’ music. In 2012 the record O Salutaris by Kamēr with choral music exclusively by Ēriks Ešenvalds won the Latvian Music Records Award for the best academic music album of the year 2011, and this fall the State Choir Latvija, under Sirmais’ baton, released At the Foot of the Sky (recorded April 2013), another recording entirely comprised of works by the composer. 
Ešenvalds’ compositions are now making their way into the folders of many conductors here in the United States. In March, I was delighted to see one of his titles among the concert programs at the National Convention in Dallas. The performance of Northern Lights by the Choir of the West (Pacific Lutheran University, Richard Nance, conductor) had the entire audience of choral enthusiasts transfixed. Both the composition and performance were truly as ethereal as the content matter itself. For me it was one of the major highlights of the conference. I am including a link to the video of that performance.
The work includes a Latvian folksong (ceneterd on Nothern Lights) and texts by two Arctic explorers Charles Francis Hall (1821-1871) and Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930):
Cik naksnīnas pret ziemeli
Redzēj’ kāvus karojam;
Karo kāvi pie debesu,
Vedīs karus mūs’ zemē.
It was night, and I had gone on deck several times.
Iceberg was silent; I too was silent.
It was true dark and cold.
At nine o’clock I was below in my cabin,
When the captain hailed me with the words:
“Come above, Hall, at once! The world is on fire!”
I knew his meaning, and, quick as thought,
I rushed to the companion stairs.
In a moment I reached the deck
And as the cabin door swung open,
A dazzling light, overpow’ring light burst upon my startled senses!
Oh, the whole sky was one glowing mass of colored flames,
so mighty, so brave!
Like a pathway of light the northern lights seemed to draw us into the sky.
Yes, it was harp-music, wild storming in the darkness;
The strings trembled and sparkled in the glow of the flames
Like a shower of fiery darts.
A fiery crown of auroral light cast a warm glow across the arctic ice.
Again at times it was like softly playing, gently rocking silvery waves,
On which dreams travel into unknown worlds.
The use of water glasses, and hand chimes also adds to the mystique of the composition.
Ēriks Ešenvalds studied composition with Selga Mence at the Latvian Academy of Music, completing his Master of Music there in 2004. He furthered his study by participating in various workshops and master classes throughout Europe. He has received many accolades for his compositions including the LATVIAN GREAT MUSIC PRIZE in 2005 and 2007. For his work LEGENDE DE LA FEMME EMMUREE (LEGEND OF A WALLED-IN WOMAN) he was awarded first place at the 2006 International ROSTRUM for Composers in the Young Composers category. He is also a laureate of the AKKA/LAA COPYRIGHT AWARD (2006) and Diena`s Annual Culture Award (2007). In 2010, he received a British Composer Awards Nomination and a Composition Teaching Achievement Award from the Riga Dome Choir School. More recently, during the 2011-2013 academic years he held the position of Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK.
His current music catalogue contains nearly fifty choral related titles, which is a formidable output for a composer of 36. While my experience with his work is relatively limited, I’ve enjoyed most of what I have heard. Ešenvalds’ choral compositions have received numerous performances in Latvia and throughout the rest of Europe, but a few have also been performed by our colleagues at colleges and universities around the United States including Kent Hatteberg (University of Louisville), Brady Allred (formerly at University of Utah), Brad Holmes, (Millikin), and Joe Miller (Westminster Choir College).
For those who would like to familiarize themselves with Esenvalds’ music, I have selected some of his choral compositions and provided links to performances by Latvian choirs conducted by Māris Sirmais.
O Salutaris Hostia
Performed by Youth Choir Kamēr, Māris Sirmais, Conductor, filmed May 26, 2012
Tāls ceļš / Long Road
Performance by State Choir LATVIJA, Māris Sirmais, conductor, filmed October 12, 2012.
From the CD “From the Baltic Coast” by the State Choir Latvija, Māris Sirmais, conductor
A Drop in the Ocean
Performed by Latvian Youth Choir Kamēr, Māris Sirmais, conductor, Uploaded to youtube on October 21, 2008
If you wish to learn more about Ēriks Ešenvalds, please visit Eriksenvalds.com. If you are interested in purchasing his music, the majority of his choral works are published with Musica Baltica (www.musicabaltica.com) and C.F. Peters (www.edition-peters.com) and some are distributed through JWPepper.
 Vance Wolverton, “A Unique Treasure: The Latvian Choral Anthology,” Choral Journal 54:4 (November 2013): 9.
 Veltījumi, Youth Choir Kamēr, Māris Sirmais, conductor, Latvenergo, KCD008, CD.
 “Biography,” Ēriks Ešenvalds, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.eriksesenvalds.com/index.php?topic=bio&lang=en.
 “Worklist,” Ēriks Ešenvalds, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.eriksesenvalds.com/index.php?topic=music&lang=en