Can music unite a young nation?

Nauris Puntulis a tenor who also had a successful pop career in his 20s, but is now the craggy, grey-haired minister-from-central-casting in the country’s centre-right coalition government.

In the UK it is almost obligatory for a culture minister never to have attended an opera. In Latvia, a small country that takes these things very seriously, the newly installed culture minister hasn’t just seen plenty of operas, he’s starred in them.

Latvia is proud of its musical traditions. Like Finland on the other side of the Baltic Sea, it produces a remarkable number of leading conductors and classical musicians for so small a country.

This summer it is launching an annual music festival at the capital’s seaside resort, Jūrmala, designed to be more than just a moment of high culture but something of a rallying point for a country with a delicate historical and geo-political backdrop.

‘The only way for us to exist was to nurture our culture’: Nauris Puntulis, tenor, former pop star and the minister for culture Photograph: State Chancellery

“When we founded our state after the first world war, culture was a central element,” says Puntulis, “more important in a way than political structures. The only way for us to exist was to nurture our culture.”

Latvia and the other Baltic states had spent centuries as playthings of empires – Swedish, Polish, German and Russian. All it had to sustain itself was its language and a Lutheran choral tradition that remains vibrant and culminates every five years in a huge song and dance festival in Riga at which the combined choir numbered 17,000.

The Latvian state lasted only 20 years before the country was occupied successively by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union once again after the second world war. Latvia has only been independent again since 1991. “It was our folk art culture that kept us alive under the Soviet occupation,” says Puntulis.

There was, though, one beneficial byproduct of that almost 50-year Soviet occupation – the network of free music schools that have helped a country of just 2 million people to produce a battery of international classical music stars: conductors Mariss Jansons and Andris Nelsons; opera singers Elīna Garanča and Kristine Opolais; violinists Gidon Kremer and Baiba Skride; and cellist Mischa Maisky. Grafting Soviet pedagogy on to Latvia’s choral tradition has produced a potent musical mix.

In the UK, music education now relies on parents stumping up for private lessons. But Latvia has a network of 120 music schools, not just in the cities but in the countryside too, and one in 12 children attend them, usually between 3pm and 6pm after their general schooling is over.

“The accessibility of the music schools is the pride of our nation,” says Puntulis. “A third of the culture budget goes into education.” Critics argue that it is too expensive and that the system should prioritise excellence over mass participation, but Puntulis is unconvinced. “We’re educating listeners as well as performers.”

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra plays at Riga’s opera house. Photograph: Ilmars Znotins

The new festival hopes to tap into that audience – in Latvia opera and classical concert prices tend to be lower than in the west and audiences younger – as well as attract music lovers from other countries.

“The aim is to put Latvia on the map,” says the festival’s director Zane Čulkstēna, who also founded and still runs the contemporary art centre in Riga. “We want to get across the message that music has a special place here, and we are not from forests where we spend all our time picking mushrooms”, although mushrooms are indeed a national obsession in heavily forested Latvia.

The festival is largely privately funded by a group of business people based in Latvia or who are part of the large Latvian diaspora that resulted from the tragedies of the 20th century. The chairman of the trustees is Petr Aven, a Russian businessman whose father was half-Latvian. Aven is worth an estimated $5.2bn so he can afford the logistical and financial burden of bringing four internationally renowned symphony orchestras and an array of soloists to Riga and Jūrmala on four weekends in July and August. But in future years, when the festival hopes to add extra weekends, he is looking for greater state support.

“We are doing this for Latvia,” he tells me during the interval of the second of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s two concerts at Riga’s opera house. “Latvia is potentially a great country. It lost a lot of people during the second world war and in Soviet times, but it has a great environment and a great musical culture. We wanted to do something to distinguish Latvia from the rest of the world, but at some stage we hope the Latvian state will come in. If you want it to be sustainable, you need the state to participate.”

Aven, eager to get back to the second half of the concert, is coy when I ask him why music matters so much to Latvians. “Why do they play football in Brazil? Why in France are there so many painters?” he says.

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But the new president, Egils Levits, a judge at the European Court of Justice, who attends the festival’s gala opening, is happy to spell out its central role.

Culture, he explains, was central to the survival of Latvian identity during the occupation and is just as important now in a digital age that threatens to atomise the population. “The choral movement has a big social role,” he says, “especially in the countryside, with people coming together over a period of years to prepare for the song festival.” The fact that the anti-Soviet movement of 1987-91 that led to the independence of Latvia and the other Baltic states was called the Singing Revolution underlines the social and political importance of the choir tradition.

Like many politicians across Europe, Levits is worried about globalisation. He says the decline of solidarity and a shared identity – complicated in Latvia by the presence of both Latvian- and Russian-speaking populations – feeds alienation and social breakdown. Keeping musical and cultural traditions alive, making sure, as Puntulis says, that the concert hall is not entirely supplanted by the shopping mall, is accorded a significance unthinkable in the west. “In America, culture is something for the elite,” says Levits. “In Latvia it’s for everyone.”

He realises that an emphasis on protecting the nation’s traditions can become nativist if taken too far, but says he is determined to guard against that. “It is possible to be introverted, to reflect about ourselves, but at the same time to be open to the world,” he insists. The ambition is to strike a balance between modernity and tradition, cutting-edge digital technology and vast choirs in national costume, though the number of audience members using their state-of-the-art mobile phones during concerts at the festival’s opening weekend suggests some misunderstand the nature of that balance.

The determination to sustain the country’s musical life is not, however, just about the search for social solidarity. Levits, who hopes that in future years the government will be able to forge a partnership with the festival’s private backers, sees it as a statement of what the still young state of Latvia, a member of the EU since 2004 and now firmly western facing, can achieve. “In culture there are no automatic small countries and big countries,” he says. “In music Latvia is a big country.”

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