Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Day 30-35 - Riga, Latvia

Day 30 - 35 - Riga, Latvia

Day 31 - February 6, 2016 - Riga

I was feeling quite under the weather on day 30, so I took a hiatus for a day from exploring Riga and rested up so I could enjoy a full day of exploring on Saturday. I was so excited to finally see all the cathedrals and get a taste for the night life. 

It only took me a couple hours to walk through all the major sights of Riga. I realized at that moment what a small city it really is (from the map, it seems a lot bigger). I saw the Riga Cathedral and St. Peter's Cathedral and tower. I also saw some cathedrals where I didn't know their name but their steeples were beautiful. I walked through the old town and saw all the old shops with authentic Latvian artwork, knitting, and ceramics. I walked through all of the parks and even saw the National Opera building, which looked beautiful along the water and I loved watching all the beautiful lights in the trees turn on as it got darker in the parks. It was truly magical. And of course the highlight for me was the Freedom Monument. That monument means so much to Latvia and its independence from the Soviet Union.  It was wonderful to see such a beautiful, symbolic statue to celebrate Latvian's independence and rich tradition.

After viewing all of the sights, I parked myself at a cozy coffee shop and relaxed in the city with a delicious cup of coffee, my iPad, an my blog.  Before I knew it, 3 hours had passed and it was time for dinner. I walked along the streets of old town to a nice little underground Italian restaurant and had a wonderful dinner filled with wine, and of course, pepperoni pizza. It was absolutely delicious, and I must say, pizza in Europe, no matter where I'm at, is always incredible. I can never get enough. The restaurant felt truly Italian and had exposed brick with the rounded archways. I truly felt like I was hanging out in Florence, which is always a win in my book. 

After spending more time at the restaurant I finally left and the night life of Riga was thriving. It was almost 10:00 at this point and I had passed a "New Orleans" themed bar called Moonshine and they just happened to be having the Latvian Blues Band performing live in 10 minutes. I walked in and asked if I could still get in and watch without a reservation. They found out I was from the states and they were very kind and excited to have me watch. They put me upstairs at the bar and took very good care of me.

I had an amazing time listening to this band play blues. They were very good and I couldn't help but smile the entire time they were performing. They had piano, bass, guitar, drums, singer, trumpet, and saxophone. They were beyond entertaining. I must say the decorations representing the theme of New Orleans were a little unique haha. I would say it was more of a 50's diner than it was New Orleans, but I had a good time enjoying all of the American posters, pictures, and architecture. 

It was a wonderful night and I ended up catching the last bus out of city center back to the apartment I was staying at. It felt good to experience the night life of Riga, and although it was no Las Vegas, it made me feel at home for a little while. 

Day 33 - February 8, 2016 - Riga

So I completely messed up my sleep schedule and stayed up through the middle of the night to get updates on the Super Bowl.  And I am glad I did, getting to see Peyton Manning win his 2nd Super Bowl and see Cam Newton fall to the ground pouting like a baby. I had some amazing friends send me live videos and I didn't go to sleep until 6 in the morning.

So after ruining my sleep pattern, I woke up at 1 in the afternoon and didn't leave into Riga until around 5:00. I was going to another rehearsal with the Choir Sola and was going to see them put their songs together with a rhythm section made up of piano, guitar, bass, and drums. They were rehearsing in what seemed like a black box theatre. It was so much fun to hear all the songs come together. It sounded like a musical theatre chorus and the conductors and musicians worked so quickly in figuring out songs. I had a blast listening and observing, especially with the songs that were from musicals in the states. I loved hearing their interpretations of American styles of musical theatre. 

Day 34 - February 9, 2016 - Riga

My last day in the time went by so fast. But I had a packed day and was ready to make the most of it. My day started by going to the Riga Domas Kora Skola to hear the Riga Dom Girl's Choir. I was informed when I entered that they were known as one of the best girl's choirs in the world. And they didn't disappoint. I also learned that they have to memorize all the music they perform, which is about 200 songs/year. WOW!  Unfortunately, I missed the conductor as she was sick that day, but I got to see the student conductors work with them as they prepare for their final examinations in June. These students are 4th year conducting students and are only...wait for it...19 YEARS OLD!!! I couldn't believe their musicianship and professionalism while working with this choir. I was also able to learn a lot about being a conducting student in this music-focused school.

For their final examinations, the students have to conduct one piece with the girl's choir and 2 pieces with the older, mixed choir. The conductor of those choirs picks those pieces for you. Before you can start conducting the pieces with the choirs, you have to pass a technical examination which includes:
- being able to play the entire choir piece on the piano for memory
- being able to play an individual part (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, or Bass) at any measure the conductor requests for memory
- the conductor can stop them at any point and make them sing all the parts in that specific measure they stopped them at. 

So you can see how intense the process is just to graduate from this school, and I kid you not, my jaw dropped as they were explaining the intensity of the preparation to graduate from this program. Not even colleges in the state are this intense, and this is considered a high school! (Haha)

I was able to speak to one of the students graduating in June, and he informed me of all this intensity and also that he has been living on his own in Riga since he was 15. His name is Kristaps and he is attending a music academy in Berlin next fall, where he only has to pay 300 euros a semester! I also sat in on the mixed choir, which was also at a high quality and left early to go to the Musica Baltica.

For those that don't know, the Musica Baltica is a music store that also publishes their own sheet music and music books and publishes most, if not all of the Latvian choral compositions. I met the owner, Solvita and she explained the entire story of why Latvian Choral traditions are so rich. This was founded in 19900, when Latvia sustained its independence and the traditions that were the most rich were their music and their choirs. Composers then revolutionized the sound of choirs in Latvia after their independence was claimed from the USSR and music was more complex and unique from the rest of the world. A Latvian choral piece is easy to recognize because of this time period in Latvian's musical history. 

She showed me a lot of choral composers, and an up and coming composer who is still studying at the music academy but has most than 10 pieces published through her business. She had a bag full of Latvian music for me to take home and I was so surprised and honored that she wanted me to take so much of this rich tradition home with me to show off to all musicians that are interested. I can't wait to spread my love of Latvian choral singing and compositions to the rest of my friends that are musicians in the states. It is truly captivating.

After spending a good hour and a half at the Musica Baltica, I then had the honor of having dinner and drinks with the Production Manager of the Latvia Radio Choir, Ilve Tormane. We had a great time chatting about everything from Latvian music, American musical traditions, movies, and of course, wine! We had so much in common  and were laughing for most of the time. We had dinner at an Italian cafe and then she took me to a wine studio to have some Latvian Malbec. It was absolutely delicious! Then her boyfriend joined us and drove me back to my apartment. Her boyfriend, Janis, attended the University of Kansas and has the most American accent I have ever heard for being a native Latvian. 

It was the BEST way to end my time in Riga and I do feel like I left Latvia with a wonderful friend and some INCREDIBLE professional connections. Now I can't wait to get to Finland and meet family that I've never met and that no one on my Grandma's side of the family has ever met. I look forward to telling them all about my amazing Grandma and learning all about my family's history. 

Until next time, family and friends!
Love always,


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Day 25-29 - London to Riga

Day 25-29 - Cambridge & Riga 

Day 25 - January 31, 2016 - Cambridge

On this day, I was making one last trip up to Cambridge. This was my last full day in Great Britain and I wanted to really get enveloped into the music culture one last time. I was more excited about today because I was going to get to listen and observe a choir that I have been idolizing for the last couple years...the Trinity College choir. They are the choir in the University of Cambridge that most resembles a professional group. And that's exactly what they were. 

Stephen Layton runs a choir exactly the way I would. He wastes no time with chatting, has a little fun, and points out a mistake blatantly, and directly to the person if he knows who it is. The big change is he is very soft spoken and it can be really hard to hear him. But it's incredibly focused because the choir must always be listening and paying attention to truly hear what he's saying and make the changes necessary. I got to hear them practice their typical sacred music and then they moved to the front of the sanctuary and started singing some choral jazz music, which was so much fun for me to hear. Pieces like It Don't Mean a Thing and Dancing Cheek to Cheek. I had a lot of fun watching Stephen come out of his shell a little bit and dance around while the choir performed the piece with exemplary musicianship. 

Stephen Layton is one of the most well known conductors in Europe. Anyone who is in the choir world knows his choirs and knows the work he produces. And I understand why. One thing that surprised me about him is that he is not the strongest conductor, he's just really advanced in the rehearsal process to create the sound he wants his choir to adapt to. And he's so specific in his musical notations that the phrasing and dynamic contrast is captured in the first few minutes of learning a piece. Plus his focus on diction is something I really appreciated. I could understand every word of every song, even the ones that were in a different language. I had the best time watching him work and watching the choir hang onto the every last word he said. 

Another fun thing I got to do in Cambridge was actually meet with a choir member of King's College who is from Minnesota originally, and attended Concordia College, which is considered one of the 4 big Lutheran Schools in America (Pacific Lutheran University, St. Olaf, and Luther are the other 3). His name was Sam and he was filling me in on the life of an American student in Cambridge. He got his undergrad in Choral Music Education and is now getting his Masters in Choral Conducting. He had nothing but amazing things to say about the college, but he also informed me of some things to realize a an American studying in Europe and in Cambridge specifically. The curriculum is intense and although the conducting curriculum is for beyond beginners, the theory and analysis is so advanced that no school in the states could prepare you well enough for the academic knowledge you will need to have to make it in Europe. He explained how challenging that was for him and he still feels behind in those specific classes. They also don't provide teaching certifications when you get your degree in conducting. Which means if I got my masters in Cambridge, which would only take me a year, I would still have to come back to the states to get my teaching certification to conduct at a school in the states. It really put it into perspective at how realistic or unrealistic it is for me to pursue choral conducting in Europe. I definitely have a lot of thinking to do. 

After being in Cambridge, I met Jennifer's son, Lee in the heart of London. He was meeting me in the city to take me to a very exclusive club. Lee is a writer and producer for film in LA and has made quite an amazing living in the states after growing up in London. He became a member of an exclusive club that all the A list celebrity actors, musicians, directors, etc. go to to escape the crazy fans and paparazzi. After a 6 month application and interview process, he was finally accepted into the club and goes to these clubs all around the world.  They are called the Soho House and he took me to the original one in London. It was amazing walking in and saying what member I was meeting there. They treated me like true royalty and the waiter even thought I was a celebrity because of my "pleasant face". Well if that didn't make me feel good, I don't know what else would.

It was amazing getting to see how the celebrities truly unload. In the basement floor there is a huge media room where stars of new movies will do small preview nights where they will show the new movie they are in before it's released in theaters. These people of luxury really do live extravagant lives. It was nice to get a feel for it for an evening. You can't take any photos or even really have your phone out, and you can't talk to anyone that isn't someone you're already friends with. This is to assure that celebrities won't be bombarded with meeting new people all the time and can just unwind. There also isn't a strict, fancy dress code like most other clubs would have. People are encouraged to dress casually to give it a chill club vibe. I had an amazing time and am so grateful Lee took time out of his crazy life to show me a taste of his lifestyle. I was exhausted returning to the house to pack to get ready to leave for Riga the next day, but so grateful for the memories, experiences, and people I enjoyed during my time here in London. 

Day 28 - February 3, 2016 - Riga

Latvian State Choir
Conductor - Miras Sirmais

My first choir I was observing on my time in Riga was the Latvian State Choir. They are one of the 2 main professional groups in Riga. I met with their production manager, Ieva and she helped me with getting settled and figuring out what projects they were currently working on. 

The choir was strictly doing Latvian works by Latvian composers. Their centennial is coming up in 2018 and they are celebrating by having a huge music festival displaying the 85 composers that have composed choral music in Latvia since establishing their independence from Russia in 1918. They also hope that by 2018, there will be 100 composers writing choral music in Latvia. I think they can do it with the exemplary musicians they are producing here in Latvia. 

They had a beautiful sound, especially in the men's section. I actually thought the women's intonation was a lot more breathy than I would have expected from one of the top choirs in Latvia. They sing strictly straight tone, and I was able to hear them practice all Latvian choral works. I was even introduced to the music by Selga Mence. He is a very famous composer in Latvia and teaches composition and conducting at the Musik Akademie. He also was the one that taught composition to Eriks Esenvalds. The piece they were working on at this rehearsal had a Latvian tribal sound to it but at the same time very contemporary, just like most Latvian works. 

The sopranos had a very bright sound, which worked when it was just the sopranos singing. They have a great blend as a part, but I thought they stuck out in tone from the 3 other parts. The other 3 parts encompassed the dark, rich tone that I expect from a Russian choir. 

Every person in this choir has made music their priority since they were 5 years old. They went to a music specialized school and attended the Musik Akademie to specialize in a particular music career. Singing in this choir is their only job. They have made their career by singing in this choir and make enough to make a good living. 

They had amazing control when it came to singing soft but I wish I could have heard more in their maximum volume. With a 35 person choir, I expected a bigger sound in the forte sections of songs, and I was surprised to hear them holding back so much. Obviously the rehearsals are in Latvian so I could never understand exactly what the conductor was asking for unless he sang an example of what he was wanting to hear from his choir. 

I was really impressed with the men's section, mainly because of their blend.  There wasn't an overpowering in the tenors section, and the basses truly were the rumbling foundation of the entire choir. I have never heard a sound quite like it from a group of basses. It was very easy on the ears. Also, the entire choir could've sang acapella for 10-15 minutes, and never gotten out of tune. I couldn't believe how well their intonation was. Maybe that explains the light tone in the women's parts...

All in all it was a great start to my choir experience in Riga, but little did I know this was just one of MANY amazing choirs I would hear in this small, but musical city. 

Youth Choir "Kamer"
Conductor - Janis Liepnis

That night I had the pleasure of observing the Choir "Kamer", an amateur youth choir based out of Riga under the direction of Janis Liepnis. Janis was very welcoming of my arrival and had copies of music for me to observe during my visit. The choir hand singers from their late teens, probably to their late 20s.  The choir totaled to about 35 singers, most of them being women. But the males were very strong with the group they had. I even met 2 men who were American that were singing in the choir. 

Ben was the first American I met. He is from Baltimore and currently attending the University of Latvia studying Russian Literature. He sang in school back home and found the Choir Kamer to keep his singing up. He was a tenor. 

Chris was the other American I met. He was from Ohio and had gotten his Masters degree in Choral Conducting from Northwestern.  He was currently studying with a conductor at the Musik Academie in Riga. He had been eyeing the Baltic Choral Traditions for a few years and knew he wanted to pursue conducting here. He is also 2nd conductor for a couple amateur choirs in the city. It was amazing to hear his journey to living in Riga and he absolutely loves it. I also loved being able to speak to people who spoke English really well! That has been a struggle since I got here. 

I then spoke to the conductor, Janis, for a couple brief minutes and he explained the musical experience behind the choir. To my surprise he exclaimed that most of the singers were not good sight readers. They had not studied at the music specified schools growing up and most of them were not attending the Musik akademie. But he could've fooled me because not only did they read their mm music impeccably, but they all had such a strong vibrant tone that I found to be more pleasant to the ear than the Latvian State Choir (I know I sound crazy saying that, but it's true!).

They were working on all kinds of beautiful music, most of it being music by Latvian composers, singing in Latvian and English. But they did have a couple German pieces by Bach and Brahms. He claimed the music they were singing by Bach was strictly to show the audience at their next concert that they have technical skill and knowledge. Then they wow them with their gorgeous contemporary Latvian pieces. I heard songs by composers, Andris Dzenitis, Selga Mence, Peteris Vasks, Gabriel Jackson, and Imant Ramnish. 

I had a fun time watching the choir be expressive while running through songs. They were sitting but always moving the upper part of their bodies too create and establish energy and momentum. I hadn't seen much of that in Europe since I got here, so it was nice to see something I would encourage my choir to do. The entire choir sings in straight tone, an expectation of all Latvian choirs. The sopranos had quite the piercing sound that I personally enjoyed very much. The entire choir also had a loud volume, even for a small amateur chamber group, and had no sense of breathiness in their tone.

When singing in Latvian and English, Janis asked for very bright vowels, especially from the tenors. This was to keep their pitch from falling flat and to keep the sound in the high range remaining effortless. They achieve this sound by showing their teeth and spreading their vowels out. I was surprised at how well that technique worked for this choir's sound. Janis seemed like a counter tenor when he sang examples. I was quite impressed with his vocal control and being able to easily convey it to the choir.

One thing I found very interesting was the relationship between Janis' conducting and the choir's speed. Janis likes to conduct a little ahead of the beat and the students are just a tad behind his conducting. It keeps the momentum going, the energy high, and the sound lifted and preventing the tone from falling flat. I thought it was an interesting tactic to conducting because in most choirs, that would be very difficult to achieve, but the students read his conducting very easily. I also don't know if this is intentional or accidental, but I still found it to be interesting and quite impressive. 

One part of their singing that proved their voices were young was the complication of singing true pianos on closed vowels and humming. Sopranos were being challenged to hum on a high G at a pianississimo. That is very hard for young singers and it definitely showed. But the fortes as a choir were quite glorious! It truly overpowered the small room they were rehearsing in. And it made my ears ring, which when listening to a choir, is the best feeling in the world!

When working on rhythmically complex pieces, I noticed a lot of teaching in being ahead of the beat. It's a simple concept but can be difficult to execute. I noticed in their Latvian piece by Selga Mence, that the rhythms were incredibly challenging. Each part was individually doing something incredibly syncopated that never truly matched up with the other parts. The singers were truly on their own. I was impressed with their ability to live out this technique and master yet another technical challenge that many choirs have trouble doing. 

The choir had such a huge sound, I was shocked to hear how their tone and technique changed when working on the Bach. Everything was light and bouncy, just as it should be when performing a Bach motet. It was just such a quick, vast adjustment to how they were singing previously, and although they still needed a few reminders on how to achieve this new sound, they picked up on it fast and the fugal interpretations were dead on,  in my opinion. 

Janis also explained to me that these singers are not used to singing older music like Bach and even Brahms. They truly are contemporary choir singers and stick to singing works by Latvian composers. This consists of free singing, chromaticism, and big jazz chord concepts. The phrasing also seems so automatic for these choirs when singing their traditional Baltic style.

I had a blast sitting in on this choir and see what the students my age are singing. I was so impressed with their ability and beautiful voices. And Janis showed great hospitality. That wraps it up for Day 28!

Day 29 - February 4, 2016 - Riga

Latvian Radio Choir
Conductor - Kaspars Putnins

Current Project - NEOARCTIC - A Chant Opera
12 songs
12 soundscapes
12 landscapes
12 singers
1 planet

Composers - Andy Stott (British) & Krists Auznieks (Latvian)
Director - Kirsten Dehlholm - Hotel Pro Forma

Incredible contemporary sound. Some revolutionary jazz sounds. The choir consists of a very piercing straight tone so the Jazz cluster chords really line up tonally. This is their 3rd project with this director and the Hotel Pro Forma. Today I got to witness them pre recording some of the parts to use for the actual opera premiering in Riga on August 26 of this year. And then they travel to Copenhagen where it will be premiered there. Then they will tour throughout Europe and possibly the states during the 2017 year.

Their sound is incredibly balanced. There is 1 voice per part and I can't even imagine how hard it is to stay in tune. There are even parts where men and women are repeating the same phrases in unison for over a minute. The complexity in something you think would be simple is truly mind blowing. And they do it with effortless ease. 

There are usually 24 people in a choir, but for this project they are only using 12. I can't believe the knowledge that each individual singer has about analysis and holding onto their own part in music that is truly clustered, chromatic, and sometimes whispered, shouted, and rhythmically breathed. The composition is truly revolutionary in the world of choral music and of course, opera. 

I had a chance to actually meet the composer of most of the works.  His name is Krists Auznieks and he is originally from Latvia. He sang in the Riga Cathedral Boys Choir as a child and got into jazz piano at the age of 10. After years of improvising on the piano, he wanted a bigger challenge so he went to study composition at the Royal Conservatory in Haag, Netherlands. He has been revolutionizing jazz compositions by writing through composed music with unique chords, technique, and melodies. He is now studying to get his masters in composition from Yale. He's worked with American composers, his biggest role model being Daniel Yang. 

Krists' compositions for this opera are truly unique in their own way. He's truly testing the limits of the voice and using it in so many instrumental ways. 

The recording process is so intense and quite specific. Most of the time it's one small group of parts at a time. Sometimes an individual voice has to record by themselves. Sometimes it is the whole choir. But they are never doing more than a page at a time. They do this to avoid the sound of page turns during the recording.

The opera itself is known as a chant opera and consists of eclectic choral music as well as electronic projections and light installations to create the image the music is trying to portray. Silhouettes of singers will be used to create shadows and texture in the sets. The opera is quoted as such:

"NEOARCTIC is an evocative, poetic, and alarming music performance on the Anthropocene - a new geologic epoch, defined by unprecedented human disturbance of the earth's ecosystems. NEOARCTIC is an artistic statement.

NEOARCTIC looks at a planet in flux. Independent of scale, microstructures merge into global processes. There is a connection between melting ice, dust and mud - a connection between respiration, turbulence, temperature and chances.

NEOARCTIC looks at the ruins and the rising of the modern industrial civilization. Runs and extinctions, new life forms and new landscapes. Symbiotic relations in a modern world of complexity. A wave of making and unmaking is creating new possibilities. The dystopian and the utopian are fusing, and a new sense of amazement at the wonders of the Earth is required. The processes, the structures and their forms as interplay are the subject matter of NEOARCTIC."

The 3 pieces I heard them work on today were "A Song for Temperature", "A Song for the Respirations", and "A Song for Minerals". 

The text for "A Song for Temperature" is:
Freezing point
Dew point
Bubbling point
Boiling point
Flash point
Boiling point
Bubbling point
Dew point
Freezing point

The text for "A Song for the Respirations" is:

The white lung
The blue lung
The black lung
The green lung
The crimson lung
Sighing, gasping, hissing, sucking,  blowing
The aqua lung
The steel lung
Inhaling, releasing

The text for "A Song for Minerals" is:

Raw material for a new crown
Rare metals
Precious stones
Fearsome minerals

Luminous and radiating
Fluorescent and poisonous

Wrested from the yielding ground
To be paraded from deathbed to deathbed

The words are not the focal point of these pieces. They are just one small section amidst vowels, rhythmic breathing, shouting, humming, whispering, and distinct dynamic phrasing and contrast. It is all meant to seem as one sound, creating the imagery that song is trying to describe. It's truly magical from an outsider's perspective watching this opera come to life. 

I had an amazing time observing this choir and was fortunate to get some time to talk to the conductor himself and one of the composers. They even asked my advice on the pronunciation of certain English words, which was fun (Gasping and Lung, just in case you were wondering!) I was even gifted a couple of their CDs, which I CAN'T wait to listen to when I get home! Meeting this choir has been an AMAZING experience!

Riga Dom Boys Choir
Conductor - Martins Klisans

Ok, I have one compound word to describe this choir - MINDBLOWING! Now to describe a little more about them.

This is one of the most legendary choirs in Riga and truly showcases how musically advanced Riga is in choral singing. The Riga Cathedral Boys Choir is made up of 36 boys all from the ages of 8-12. What first truly caught my attention was one the conductor walked in and was ready to warm-up their voices, the boys stopped their chatting and playing around and were ready to get to work. Their level of discipline was truly so strong that I have never seen anything like this in the states. 

On a side note, the boys must not get very many female visitors because they would not stop staring at me as they walked in to rehearsal. And when Martins introduced me as observing the choir, the boys all stared nearly simultaneously, and I couldn't help but almost burst out laughing but it was so typical of young boys to be curious of any female that's new or unfamiliar. 

The choir is made up of 1st and 2nd Sopranos, as well as 1st and 2nd Altos. The 1st Sopranos were going as high as a C7 in warm-ups alone and their scale work was so articulate and clean, it was better than women's groups in adult choirs I have heard. 

They got started and the 1st 3 songs they were working on were all in Latin. Their dialect was so true to the diction and pronunciation of the Latin words and because they were actual boys, it sounded true to the type of choir that would've sung these arrangements during the time they were written. It's like I was flashing back in time to a Catholic Church with the castrati chanting and performing all the music for the service. It was truly magical for me as an American observer. 

The conductor also treated them like true professionals. He would repeat a phrase until it was truly perfect and to his liking, which could take up to 15 minutes to perfect, and the students never swayed in attention and discipline the entire time. It really reminded me why I have always been so passionate about music education. These kids are in a music specialized school and will be pursuing their careers in music as adults. They have been taking private instruction and singing in choirs since they were 5 years old. Because of this education they are self-motivated, passionate, and self-disciplined beyond belief. They can play piano better than 3/4 of musicians I know in the states. I truly can't speak highly enough about this choir and Riga's school system. I wish there was someway that I could adapt this culture into the states. I know it's unrealistic, but you will never know what you can achieve unless you try your hardest to make it happen.  If someone is passionate about it, change can be made, and maybe that is where I come in...we will see. I think it would revolutionize the young generations to come in the states and would break this "lazy phenomenon" that has overcome them. 

I also loved watching them sing something in Latvian. They got so excited and had the most fun singing they pieces, as they were upbeat and challenging. These songs were also 4 parts instead of 2, which created such a BEAUTIFUL sound with a young group of boys. They also got to use their voice to imitate other instruments, which takes such a high level technique. I couldn't help but almost drop my jaw at the level of advanced musicality. This was the most impressive choir I have observed since I have been in Europe. I could've listened to them all day. 

Choir Sola
Conductor - Kaspars Adamsons

I was fortunate to meet up with the wife of the conductor before the rehearsal and have some coffee before the rehearsal. She was so friendly and so informative about Riga's musical culture and explaining to me what her choir was preparing for. I was so grateful to have someone to sit down and talk to. She seemed to be surprised at what I had observed about the choirs and the Latvian choral compositions and my thought about reoccurring themes. Nothing was negative but what Americans see in Latvian music can be a lot different than Latvians, because we aren't used to seeing notations and voicings in the pieces they write and perform. For example, I notice a lot of gorgeous tonalities and beautiful melodies, but also a lot of chromaticism in slight chord progressions and changes within the choirs. 

Choir Sola was preparing for a Valentine's Day Concert that consists of fun musical theatre numbers, both based in America and in Latvia. It was fun to hear music that was actually familiar to me. The sound of the choir was very pure, straight tone, and strong. There were definitely more women than men, but this group is considered an amateur choir because not everyone is a professional musician or studied musician and they aren't getting compensated individually for their work. Only the choir as a whole gets paid for gigs and such so they can go to one international competition a year. They were doing pieces from American musicals like West Side Story, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Grease and composers like Andrew Lloyd Weber and ABBA.

This was a fun choir that I enjoyed listening to their reinterpretations of musical theatre in America. Their English singing and speaking was exemplary and I felt like I was home for a short period of time. On Monday I will return to their rehearsal and get to see them put all the songs together with the band/rhythm section they will have. I'm really looking forward to hearing all of this come together. 

All in all it was a crazy busy day and so much fun and I was truly exhausted after 12 hours of music observation. But the choral culture in Riga is so rich and so well known and they are SO proud of their traditions. It's not hard to get completely enveloped in their passion and their traditions. Something I definitely wish I could take back to the states with me and adapt into choirs around the country. 

Until next time, my family and friends! Miss you all!


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Day 14-24 - Salzburg and London

Day 14 - 24 - January 20-30

Day 14 - Salzburg

Today was a day that we took easy around Salzburg. We went and had our laundry done and enjoyed some coffee at a local cafe while waiting for our laundry to get done. 

After our laundry we just spent a day exploring other parts that were filmed for the Sound of Music and seeing the Salzburg Cathedral.

Not much to report for these next few days so I'm going to skip to day 16 from here.

Day 16 - Salzburg

Today was a day that Ben and I had been looking forward to. It was a clear, sunny day and there was still snow everywhere. We were on our way to the top of the Untersberg mountain, which is the same mountain Maria Von Trapp can't stay away from when it's calling her name to go sing in the hills.

We were up early and took a bus all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Then the part I was most afraid of was next. We had to take a gondola ride from the bottom to nearly 2,500 meters high. Safe to say I never looked up or down on the way up and in 9 minutes, we were at the top of the mountain. 

The view was absolutely breathtaking and unlike anything I had ever seen before. There was snow everywhere and the sun was shining incredibly bright. We walked out of the lodge area and saw that there were hiking paths that lead to the summit of the mountain. Being terrified of heights, I was terrified to try and climb to the top but Ben wanted to more than anything, so I knew I had to overcome my fear. 

The hiking trail was filled with steep hills going down and up but as we approached the summit, there was no trail anymore. We had to free climb to the top, walking over trees and rocks that were hidden feet beneath the snow. It was scary but when we made it to the actual summit of the mountain, it was absolutely stunning. Nothing could replace seeing the villages below us on one side and gorgeous mountain ranges on the other. Although it was a tad windy,  it was beyond beautiful.

We headed back down the mountain after an incredible morning and we drove to the Schloss Frohnburg. This was the palace where they filmed the exterior of the Von Trapp house in the movie. I approached the house along the side wall just as Maria does and I couldn't believe I was walking the same steps. It was truly a dream come true and a great way to continue a perfect day.

The rest of the day was taking it easy and getting ready to head to London the next day. I knew this day how much I was going to miss Salzburg. It had quickly been one of my most favorite cities in the world.

Day 17 - Salzburg - London

This evening we flew from Salzburg to London where we met Jennifer at the London-Gatwick Airport. Jennifer is one of the most amazing ladies I have ever met. She was my tour guide when I sang with choral Union in Italy back in 2014. She is hilarious and kind and incredibly generous.  I have been so grateful that he has been so flexible with letting Ben and I stay at her house. 

She drove us to the house and it is beautiful. It is in a beautiful neighborhood in Walten-on-Thames and it is huge! It was amazing to be enriched in the actual culture of someone that lives their life in the heart of England. We settled in and called it an early night to get adjusted to yet another place on our trip.

Day 18 - London

This was our first full day and Ben was going to get to accomplish a dream he has had since he was a kid: going to an EPL match! We were going to the Emirates stadium to see Arsenal play Chelsea in a 60,000 person stadium. The whole day trip was truly an experience. You couldn't drink alcohol in the actual stadium, the fans were the most passionate fans I had ever witnessed, and there was added security in the boundary between the visiting teams fans and the home teams fans. 

Unfortunately the visiting team, Chelsea, won and the police were on horses as we were exiting the stadium to keep the visiting fans segregated from the home team fans. It was quite a scene to witness and I'm so glad Ben got to live out his dream. 

Day 19 - Cambridge

Today was a long day of traveling, but I got to see a town and university that any musician would dream of attending. I was going to get to meet the King's College voices and the St. John's College voices and their conductors through Cambridge University. Ben and I made the long trek up there, and it was obvious that this was a huge college town. The bars and restaurants all had a great vibe and after grabbing some lunch, I was on my way to my first rehearsal with King's College voices and their choral evensong service.

The King's College had a beautiful pure sound, with an incredibly strong men's section. The women's sections were light and pure, with a countertenor in the alto section. Under the direction of Ben Parry, Ben focuses a lot on diction and momentum. He believes too keep the purity of the sound and tone, there must be momentum in the breath, phrasing, and energy behind the note. That works so well with his group and I was impressed with how quick they picked up on the technique in that rehearsal.

The service was beautiful and the chapel was stunning! So much detail to the architecture and the stain glass was so bright. Definitely the best chapel in Cambridge. 

St. John's evensong was beautiful as well, and the service was very similar. The choir had a big sound, a and the women had a lot darker tone with a lot of color. The men were also very strong, with a very dominant chest voice sound, especially in the tenor section. Both choirs were very small but had incredible tone, support, and work ethic.

Day 20 - WB Studio Tour - Harry Potter

Today was an absolutely awesome day! We were going to witness the actual sets used in the filming of the Harry Potter movies -  ALL 8 OF THEM! After traveling a ways to the studio, we were able to see original artifacts used in the movies including all the horcruxes, original costumes, the tri-wizard cup, the goblet of fire, buck beak, and so much more!  We even got to see Dumbledore's office, the Gryffindor common room,  the boys dorm, the Great Hall and multiple other sets. We drank butter beer and took home a few small souvenirs to celebrate visiting our 2nd Harry Potter themed park! The coolest part was seeing the actual model of Hogwarts school and castle. It was so elaborate and detailed and truly gorgeous, especially with the winter snow feature on the model. Truly a dream come true! Ben and I had a fabulous time nerding out on such an incredible movie series!

Day 21-22 - London

These 2 days we took to go into the center of London. We saw Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, London Bridge, the aquarium, the Bond in Motion exhibit, and some shopping centers where we did some awesome shopping and ate and drank at some awesome restaurants and bars. It was nice to have the freedom to we and do what we would like. London is a beautiful place and we even got a gorgeous clear day to go to the top of the London Eye and see all of London. It was the perfect way to end the last 2 1/2 weeks in Europe together. I didn't want it to end.

Day 23 -  London/Walton-on-Thames

Unfortunately, Ben had to leave and it was becoming very clear how homesick I was getting. Always experience new and unknown regions and now I didn't have my one constant to share everything with. It was hitting me harder emotionally than I thought it would. So I took this day to relax and get used to being alone again. Fortunately, Jennifer was not doing anything that evening so we went into the city together and attended a choir concert at the St. James Sussex Church. They were mostly doing music by Karl Jenkins and some pieces by John Rutter. The music was beautiful but the choir,  unfortunately, was less than mediocre. Jennifer and I ended up leaving at intermission and she showed me all the different center districts of London. It was filled with life, light, and so many people!

Jennifer and I returned home and engaged in some wonderful conversation as well as had a delicious meal made of pork goulash, rice, purple sprout, red bell peppers, and fennel. Jennifer did a wonderful job of getting me out of the house and keeping me occupied in my first night without Ben in 2 1/2 weeks.

Day 24 - Walton-on-Thames

Today is a relaxing day doing laundry, catching up on my blog, and getting ready to go to Cambridge tomorrow and then onto Riga on Monday. Thank you all so much for your support and love in all of this. My homesickness is definitely evident now and although I plan to savor every moment of this experience, I also am looking forward to being home again with my friends and family. They mean more to me than anything in the world!

Love you all! Until next time!

Megan Leibold

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

 Day 7 - 13

I've gotten quite behind since Ben has joined me in Berlin but I will try my best to briefly catch you up on the days since he has arrived.

Day 7 -Final Day in Cologne 

I woke up early to meet Stefan for coffee in the heart of Cologne before attending another rehearsal and their afternoon concert. I was able to ask him anything I wanted about his career or what it is like singing under the direction of him and so on and so forth.

One of the first questions I asked is, "what is the process for auditioning to sing in the Cologne Radio Choir?"
 He explained it as something quite unique to their choir specifically. He doesn't actually have the final say in choosing who should be in his choir. There is a committee of choir members that meets up for auditions and they choose who should move on to the next round and then who should ultimately be in the group. There are usually 3 rounds of auditions, singing prepared solo pieces, singing pieces given to you by the choir to learn your specific part, and sight reading. I was surprised to learn that sight reading was the last part of the audition since all of the members of the choir are forced to learn songs quickly and efficiently. Sight reading plays a huge role in that. Stefan also agreed that if he could have it his way, he would make sight reading a requirement in the first round. I couldn't agree more with that statement.

There were many questions to follow that related to his career as a conductor and what sounds he expects from him choir. Something I found peculiar is once his contract ends wit the Cologne Radio Choir, it is up to the choir to decide whether they want him to stay or not. Which, as difficult as that is for the conductor, it makes sense since ultimately the choir knows their own potential and wants the best person conducting them to their success. We also discussed further Stefan's style of conducting and how he has adapted to adding orchestras when conducting larger works. He says this is what separates a mediocre choral conductor from an advanced one. If you make rhythm a priority and have advanced rhythmic techniques, that you will be successful conducting any work whether it has orchestra, small ensemble, etc. He says that choir conductors get a bad reputation for not being able to conduct with a full orchestra and a choir in front of them but Stefan has done his best to break that stereotype and I feel he has been truly successful.

After my wonderful talk with Stefan and 2 cappuccinos later, we were off to a short rehearsal before heading to their concert. They wasted no time making sure all of the pieces were performance ready. There was nothing out of the ordinary that wasn't already done the day before and before I knew it we were heading to the "small" church just around the corner of the WDR. I walked into the church and immediately realized the incredible acoustics of the room. 

The church was standing room only by the time the short afternoon concert started. The choir had informed me beforehand that Germans love when things are free, especially their concerts. So I can't even tell you how many people were in that church just waiting to hear a taste of what the radio choir would be performing during this term. I couldn't believe all the support they had from the community. If only there was a way for people in the states to get that excited about hearing an exquisite choir perform very complex music. One can dream!

After the short concert which went absolutely perfect, with only 2 days of rehearsal, I said my goodbyes to Stefan and the choir and was quickly heading off to the airport to catch my flight to Berlin to meet Ben! Unfortunately I was given very confusing information from the help desk at the train station and was taken onto the wrong train heading the opposite direction into the country of Germany. I finally asked someone for help and a very nice young German girl wrote down specific directions to get me back on track and I was stuck at this very creepy train stop for about a half hour. It looked like someone had filmed a horror movie there before and the time couldn't have gone by any slower. I finally got back on track and was at the airport with plenty of time before my flight. But then another issue had presented itself...

Ben was in Berlin texting me before my flight took off and he was looking for my flight number to check what gate I would be arriving at. Well it was at that moment we realized that our flights took us to different airports in Berlin. Ben was at thee Berlin-Tegels airport on the North side and I was flying into the Schonefeld airport on the South side. At this point Ben was on his own to get to the hotel with not knowing an ounce of German. I started to get really anxious picturing him getting lost in Berlin. Luckily Ben got very lucky when he got off at a random stop and found his way to the hotel one a whim. I was relieved to know he was at the hotel by the time I landed. I got train information and met him at the hotel about an hour after I landed and we were finally reunited! We got settled and had some dinner at the hotel restaurant and Ben had his first German black beer. He was in heaven especially after having the best cheesecake he'd ever had for dessert. We went back up to the room and crashed hard, preparing for the amazing day ahead.

Day 8-10- Berlin 

We woke up to a beautiful clear day and immediately got ready to head out and explore. Our main goal was to go up to the Berlin tower and have lunch in their rotating restaurant. What an incredible view on such a sunny day. The food was amazing and I had my first curry wurst, which was absolutely delicious.

We explored other monuments, churches, and even some luxury cars, including a $2.5 million Bugatti. And we ended our day of exploring with a picture in front of the Brandenburg Gate. 

My time in Berlin with Ben is not really related to music at all because I wanted to have time to do touristy things with the one I love most. My musical journey wouldn't be continuing until London. 

On our last day in Berlin we went to an evensong service at the Berliner Dom performed by the Berlin-English choir. They were a small group that had a difficult time filling out the sound of the cathedral. They did have great diction and their men's sections were definitely the leaders of the group. The service was very peaceful and all in German but we had a wonderful time soaking up the beauty of the church and getting to hear the huge organ performing the prelude and postlude. After the service we walked to a little restaurant that seemed like the living and dining room of someone's house. Here we had an authentic German dinner with schnitzel and delicious desserts. The waiter was also incredible friendly. It was the perfect way to end our last night in Berlin and when we walked out of the restaurant it was snowing hard! The walk back couldn't have been any more beautiful! 

Day 11 -  Leaving for Salzburg

Our flight left early Sunday morning and we had a 3 hour layover in Cologne. I was getting so giddy to know that we would finally be flying into the city I had dreamed of going to most for nearly 20 years. As we landed in Salzburg, I immediately recognized the beauty of the city and the buildings and fortresses that we were passing on the plane. We took a taxi to our hotel and were immediately surprised at how central our hotel was to the rest of Salzburg. We were both equally excited. We checked in and got into our hotel room and were immediately out ready to explore. We walked through some popular parts of town and had our first meal at the Cafe Mozart (fitting,  isn't it?). We had some authentic Austrian noodle dishes and then we were off to the pub that was going to play the Seahawks game. We befriended an Austrian who had studied at University of Oregon and grew to love the Seahawks and then a man from Holland who knew nothing about American football. We watched the Seahawks game and even though it ended in a loss, I couldn't help but just be so happy that I was in Salzburg and there was snow everywhere! I hadn't seen anywhere more beautiful than this city of Salzburg.

Day 12 - Original Sound of Music Tour

We woke up the next morning and I was more excited than a kid in a candy store. Ben and I were going to be on a 4 hour tour learning and seeing the filming locations of thee Sound of Music. We went to the lake where the children and Maria fell out of the canoe and saw where the terrace was custom built between 2 fortresses. We went to the Schloss Hellbrunn where one of three gazebos was standing and right outside of the Hellbrunn was the same bus stop that Maria got out on to walk towards to the house to meet the Von Trapp family. It was there that I needed to skip and sing a part of "I Have Confidence". I should also mention there was snow everywhere and it was a perfectly sunny day. It was seriously so beautiful. We then drove past the fortress that they film the exterior of for the front and back and past the Nonnberg Abbey. 

The bus then took us over the mountains heading towards the Mondsee to see the church where the wedding scene was filmed and we even got to walk down the aisle that Julie Andrews did nearly 51 years ago. We also made a bus stop on the way there that showed a gorgeous view of a huge lake that was filmed at the very beginning of the movie before Maria started singing "The hills are alive with the Sound of Music".

I was the happiest I'm sure Ben has ever seen me and it couldn't have been on a more perfect, sunny day. We ended our tour by seeing the Mirabell gardens and walked through most of the spots they filmed "Do-Re-Mi" in. 

After the tour we went and had lunch at a pizzeria about 5 minutes from our hotel and had some HUGE and delicious pizzas. We came back to the hotel and actually passed out and got 12 hours of sleep that was very deserving. 

Day 13 - Sallzburg

Today was a day of exploring. We went to the modern museum of Monschberg and saw some of the weirdest exhibits we had ever seen before. But the museum was at the top of a cliff that overlooked all of Salzburg. Wow, what a sight to see!

We then walked around to see other sights of the Sound of Music filming. We passed the fountains and the square that consisted of the fountain and the place where the Nazis marched through. We then walked up the 100 steps to the entrance of Nonnberg Abbey, where multiple scenes were filmed in front of. 

We then had lunch at an Italian restaurant and had some amazing pasta with the most flavorful sauces.  On our way back to the hotel we got some beer and wine and laid on the bed and watched the Sound of Music on my iPad. How amazing to relive everything we had just walked through the past 2 days. Living in a dream every time I'm in Salzburg. 

Thank you everyone for continuing to follow and read my blogs. No promises on them being daily but I plan to catch you up when I get behind!