Ēriks Ešenvalds and his music was featured at The XV Latvian Song and Dance Festival that was held in St. Paul, Minnesota on June, 29, 2022. I was fortunate to conduct a brief interview with Eriks at the Cathedral of St. Paul before I attended his afternoon masterclass and the evening Welcome Concert. Ešenvalds’ music was skillfully performed by the Mixed choirs AMINA of Saulkrasti, Latvia (Laura Leontjeva & Matïss Tučs, conductors) and Magnum Chorum of Minnesota (Dwight Jilek, conductor).

Peter J. Durow

Durow: How many times have you been to Minnesota?

Ešenvalds: Three. The first time was the National ACDA conference six years ago. The second time was last month when Magnum Chorum and the St. Olaf College Choir with Anton Armstrong gave two concerts of my music. That was a lot of fun. I am very happy to be back for the Latvian Song and Dance Festival.

Durow: And you’ve also worked with Dwight Jilek before?

Ešenvalds: Yes. He invited me to Bemidji State University about 4 or 5 years ago where I stayed for one week. I enjoyed the BSU choir students. We had a wonderful rehearsal. In my spare time I also enjoyed the University library where I found wonderful materials about the first nation, indigenous people. I am writing a ballet right now and found some materials there that I am using for my ballet.

So working with Dwight Jilek is fantastic and I am very happy that Magnum Chorum is here at the festival. VocalEssence with Phillip Brunelle is also singing another concert at the festival. It is so great to have this celebration. Also the Latvian choir, ANIMA, has arrived from Latvia and they will be singing together with Magnum Chorum. The blend from two different cultures and heritages is just beautiful.

Durow: That leads to another question. Could you talk about your impression of choral music in Europe compared to the United States?

Ešenvalds: I think 20-30 years ago there were less colors in every choir. The choirs today have started to explore new territories of repertoire, of style, of folk songs from different nations. So choirs have started to learn these different voice colors. Be it in Scandinavia, in Europe, or the US, the singers and conductors are so smart and they want to learn how to produce different colors. They want to learn how to sound different for Palestrina, Bach, French repertoire, American Gospel, new age music, and also folk styles that require different voice colors. So the choir is becoming like a laboratory to explore and try these different repertoires. The winners are those choirs that do it alot. They step into unknown territories, they explore and enjoy them. In a single concert, a choir can show more variety. I think this is the future.

I have heard some choirs sing different music with the same tone. I don’t think this is a good solution. The world is so colorful. It is enormously colorful. We only have one life. Let’s explore this color. I would encourage every conductor to bring in new colors to your repertoire.

Durow: Are you conducting any choirs right now?

Ešenvalds: No, I don’t conduct. I am a freelance composer and also love teaching. I teach three days a week at the Latvian Music Academy. I teach composition, style and interpretation, and instrumentation. So I am a classical composer and teach from an academic classical composer profile. I am very happy for this opportunity to teach because it also keeps me studying. Even though I have studied pieces by Lutosławski, or Penderecki, or Morten Lauridsen, I find something new every time I look at these pieces again with the students. This keeps my brain active and I feel like I would be very happy to be a student all of my life.

I would also like to conduct a little bit. Tonight I will be conducting one song. So I am very happy to have a connection with a choir as a conductor. But not too much.

Durow: You want to predominantly be a composer and do just a little conducting?

Ešenvalds: Yeah. So I studied piano and all, but my priority is composing.

Durow: There are some amazing audio and video recordings on the featured section of your website that I want to point out to our readership. Is there anything in particular that you’d like them to know about these pieces?

Ešenvalds: I am very happy to create my own projects. I’m very thankful to the choirs worldwide, who have commissioned me a lot. These choirs have been so active in commissioning, but at the same time, I also have been longing to write instrumental music for orchestras and chamber orchestras. There needs to be a good balance. If I am writing only choral music then it’s kind of just one face of me.

So in my schedule I will find a piece for orchestra or for opera. Right now I am writing a ballet. I have written two operas. Also a multimedia scene from these pieces for orchestra. I get quite angry when critics name me as a choral composer. I’m not. I am a classical composer. I make sure my composing schedule is in balance with instrumental music.

Durow: That is really interesting. I heard Penderecki say once that he wants to write a piece and then do something totally different. He said that he doesn’t want to write the same piece over and over. Is that what you are saying in that you don’t want to be known as a choral composer who writes the same piece multiple times but instead wants to write a balance of instrumental and choral music?

Ešenvalds: Yes. And it worries me, honestly, because it is quite easy to copy and paste. That’s why it helps to change. To not just compose choral pieces. Okay, next week you will write something for children. Like maybe for your children, music school, a piano solo. Why not? This shift of styles and instrumentation is very helpful.

Durow: Going back to talking about your composition students, what age level are they?

Ešenvalds: University students from age 19 to 30.

Durow: Nice! What is your connection with the Latvian choir (AMINA) that we are going to hear tonight?

Ešenvalds: I know some of their singers. Some of them are students at the music academy studying music pedagogy, music teaching, or conducting. But this choir is a wonderful group of singers because they have a wide range of ages in the group. So you will see some singers who are already retired, along with singers in their 40s, 50s, 30s and then even in their 20s. ANIMA is not from a big city, but they are actually from a very small and beautiful town. They come together and they learn beautiful music and also some very challenging pieces. What is most important to them as an amateur choir is the emotion and passion that they bring to the group.

Durow: That is great! Thank you so much for your time today.

Ešenvalds: Yes, thank you, and you’re welcome.

The 2 p.m. masterclass enlisted both ANIMA and Magnum Chorum as demonstration choirs while Ešenvalds lectured on his compositional process. Two pieces that the choirs and audience sang together include “Only in Sleep” and “Stars.”

The 7:30 p.m. Welcome Concert at the St. Paul Cathedral has been recorded and archived by Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to the concert and find more information about the program on yourclassical.org