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Juris Ābols. Latvian Radio Choir. Opera XENIAE

An event, a happening, an experience – this is what critics usually call the Latvian composer Juris Ābols, born in 1950, a son of a painter and a literary scholar. The first concert of his music took place at the Latvian Radio studio in 2020 – just a couple of weeks before he passed away. Known for his wrongness and non-conformity, Juris Ābols once literally brought a bucket filled with sheets of music arranged in a random order to the artistic director of the Latvian Radio Choir Sigvards Kļava. That one was an opera called XENIAE, recorded in the basement of Kļava's home, about “the place and existential struggle of the creative person in today’s global and cosmic world”, as the composer said himself. The album (CD, streaming and download format) will be released on July 1, 2022. Juris Ābols lived alone in his small, white house in Riga and also died alone. On the evening of October 12, Ābols had said to Dāvis Eņģelis, who was hosting the concert: “I’ve completed a full 360-degree circle, beginning with an exercise in harmony to Dadaism and back again, slowly approaching an eight-part chorus and classical harmonies. It’s a natural path. And I’m perfectly happy with it. Because I’ve achieved everything. All that’s left are the magarichas [a drink or meal to seal the deal], as the Gypsies say.” Ābols’ father was the painter Ojārs Ābols, one of the most significant and vivid abstractionists of the second half of the 20th century. His mother was the literary scholar Mirdza Ābola, who specialized in the Belarusian language. Ābols himself became a trained flutist at the age of 22, and by age 32 he had also trained as a composer. At the age of 37, he was thrust into the Composers’ Union by his friends and supporters, albeit with some difficulty. In the late 1970s, Ābols dabbled with playing in the Opera Orchestra. In the second half of the 1980s, a brilliant trio formed that consisted of violinist Jānis Bulavs, pianist Edmunds Goldšteins and Ābols on flute. All intense, stormy characters, but for at least a few years their collaboration met with dazzling success, both in recordings and on the concert stage. In the late 1990s, Ābols headed to Strasbourg and spent several years playing the organ in a number of churches (according to other sources, he worked in a morgue). By conviction, he was a seemingly monotheistic, Buddhist-minded Dadaist. In his music, Ābols was a describer of the Gobi Desert, a researcher of elephants and mice, an expert on normal physiology, a connoisseur of political-erotic games, a contemplative composer of crystal-clear motets, a scribe of Livonian chronicles and the Crusades, a clairvoyant of zodiac signs and an ancient priest of all kinds of knowledge who loved to write letters. He also refused to take a step without his famous colorful cap on his head, – writes the musicologist Orests Silabriedis. The opera XENIAE does not appear on the list of Juris Ābols’ works, a list that is quite incomplete, at least in regard to the last decade of his life. It all began with Ābols bringing over a bucket filled with sheets of music to Sigvards Kļava, and it took him a week of sorting them all out to put the opera score in the correct order. Sometimes he wasn’t even sure which direction to hold the paper in order to read the music. The recording then took place in the summer of 2010 in the basement of Sigvards Kļava's house. Ābols basically lived with the Latvian Radio Choir for that whole time and was present at almost all of the recording sessions. The singers arrived alone, or sometimes in pairs, and he tried to explain to each one the type of character they were to portray. About a month and a half were spent on the project. Juris Ābols also played his soprano saxophone; when it came to jazz licks, he liked to play the walking bass, because it’s impossible to mess up. Sigvards Kļava remembers once Ābols arrived with this little apparatus – back in the Soviet days there were these devices with batteries and small lamps, and when you turned them, a weak light would appear. So he said that Kļava needed one of those to carry light to the nation. The Latin xenia, or Greek ξενία, is a gift that a host presents to his guests at a banquet, often together with an apt, well-aimed couplet. The ancient Roman writer Martial, who was born in modern-day Spain and lived from about 40 CE to about 100-120 CE (depending on the source), was a famous author of such witty, well-polished epigrams. Martial titled one of his epigram books the Xenia, but we can only guess how this relates to the title of Ābols’ opera (xeniae being ‘gifts’ in the plural) and to the fact that one of the main characters in the opera is called Martial. In the preface, Ābols explains that perhaps everything in the opera is just a dream. How else could one explain its setting (the modern-day Republic of Northern Macedonia, known in the early 1990s as Fyrom, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and time (a few centuries before Martial was born)? The artistic director of the Latvian Radio Choir Sigvards Kļava remembers: “Juris Ābols always appeared at a certain time and place with something in his hand, perhaps a musical score – uninvited, but he nevertheless appeared, and things often happened soon after that arrival. He sent us a bay leaf after he had joined the Vatican choir, and the Pope resigned soon after that. A month before 9/11 he played me his crusade marches and said, “We have to fight; it’s going to be a mess real soon.” With a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, he pounded on the piano... Ābols did not fit into the norms of society. For example, he smeared himself with turpentine to avoid getting sick. Some people enjoy that sort of thing, others don’t. But also just all the normal household and financial issues. We usually don’t share with others when we’re going through a rough patch in our lives. The pipes freeze, the electricity is cut off. If you haven’t got anyone to talk to... Clearly, the art world is heartless in the sense that it provides no social safety net. Ābols was here to introduce wrongness and nonconformity. He was always very keen on cracking jokes. The harder and crummier the circumstances, the crazier the jokes. He enjoyed getting together now and then for a drink. In one of his last letters to me he wrote about globalization, and then he asked when we might meet at my house and have some of that blue Xenia. That’s a Swiss vodka liqueur in a ghastly blue color. He brought it over after we recorded the opera, and the bottle now stands in pride of place in my home. He didn’t watch television, and he didn’t have a mobile phone. One day I called him on his home phone, and he picked up and said, “Sigvard’, I’ve been waiting for you to call me.” How could he have known?” The Latvian Radio Choir (LRC) is a unique musical group in the domain of choral music – this is a chamber choir able to perform a broad repertoire from early music to the most sophisticated modern scores. The Latvian Radio Choir is a creative laboratory that regularly encourages composers to write music that challenges the scope of vocal possibilities. The LRC also participated in the Grammy Award winning album of Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament (ECM) in a performance conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. They have been awarded the Latvian Grand Music Award on multiple occasions and have received the Award of the Ministry of the Republic of Latvia. One of the choir’s most acclaimed recordings is of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil; it was praised by the renowned music magazine “Gramophone” as the best recording in February 2013 and ranked as one of the 25 best albums of the year by American radio NPR. SKANi is a division of the Latvian Music Information Centre (LMIC). Funded by the Latvian Ministry of Culture, its goal is to produce high quality recordings of Latvian classical music performed by both emerging and established Latvian musicians and promote Latvia’s classical music heritage through its distinctive and varied programming. Founded in 2014, it has released around 100 recordings and is managed by a Latvian clarinetist Egīls Šēfers, who is also a Director of the Latvian Music Information Centre and Chairman of the Latvian Music Council. It has longstanding relationships with the Latvian Radio Choir, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, State Choir “Latvia”, Sinfonietta Riga, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and many other soloists and chamber music groups.