The Latvian conductor Kaspars Putniņš has immediately accepted the invitation by the Swedish Radio Choir to be their Chief Conductor. In his eyes, it is a dream job.
The Latvian conductor Kaspars Putniņš is to become the Chief Conductor of the Swedish Radio Choir, as revealed in an official announcement by the stellar collective.
Kaspars Putniņš will assume the position this autumn – he will be the 10th Chief Condurcor in the history of this choir. His direct predecessor Peter Dijkstra lead the choir for 11 years before leaving the position in 2018, but its most notable period, both for this choir and for the choir culture and vocal aesthetics of the whole of Scandinavia and the Nordics, including the Baltics, were the 30 years that the Swedish Radio Choir was led by the legendary Eric Ericson
Staffan Becker, the General Manager of Bewaldhallen – the concert hall of the Swedish Radio Choir – praises Kaspars Putniņš as “one of the world’s most respected choir conductors. He is thoughtful, imaginative, creative, a brilliant musician and an open-minded individual who can really help us to continue the Swedish Radio Choir's successes into the future.” Kaspars Putniņš did not hesitate in his acceptance of the offer as this is “any conductor’s dream job.” His first concert with the Swedish Radio Choir in his new role will take place this October in Stockholm.
Currently, Kaspars Putniņš is the artistic director and chief conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and continues to collaborate with the Latvian Radio Choir as well. His next season is going to be a demanding one because alongside his work in Sweden, he will also continue his work with the EPCC until the spring of 2021 as he wants to finish the creative projects he has started with the choir.
Was the offer from the Swedish Radio Choir a surprise or was it a predictable outcome of things? What does it mean to you personally?
I’ve always had a very good relationship with the Swedish Radio Choir. I was working quite a lot with them between 2005 and 2007, and during the last four years, I’ve been a guest there with several progeammes. They welcome me warmly and it seems they enjoy our collaborations as well. There were some hints and signals that they might be interested in a long-term arrangement, but nothing specific.
Only on the autumn of 2019 they asked me if I wanted to work with them in this capacity. Of course, I said yes, because working with this collective and leading it is any choral artist’s dream.
Why is leading them in particular a dream job?
Firstly, because this group is excellent in multiple ways. Secondly, because the whole of Sweden has a very high level of choir culture and it is valued highly both in the musical circles and the general society. And finally, because this is one of the choirs that have a grand story of their own. It is the story of them and Eric Ericson and what they achieved together in the second half of the 20th century. I believe we would not think of choral music and sound as we do today without what they did.
Have you had the chance to meet the great master Eric Ericson yourself, eye to eye?
Yes, and this was an immensely important meeting. In the early 90s there was this short-lived experimental collective – the Latvian Academy of Music Chamber Choir.
It was not directly connected to the choir conducting department, it was an independent choir. Romāns Vanags invited me to join it.
One of the things we did was – we invited guests. We were very lucky that Eric Ericson accepted our invitation and lived in Riga for a week. I was the one to accompany him during these days in Riga and attended to all of his needs. I was the one to go to lunch and dinner with him. If he wanted, I took him to the opera.
We talked a lot, of course. He was a very sweet and sincere man, and our conversations were about many truly important topics.
We have incorporated many of his thoughts and ideas into the work of the Latvian Radio Choir. We would have probably worked a lot with composers either way, but Ericson had a novel and important idea that through working with composers, a conductor and his choir can create a space of creativity which is more than commissioning a couple of new pieces here and there. Ericson’s space of creativity is a whole network of artists that create a potentially new perception of what this instrument – the choir – can be. Eric Ericsson was a phenomenon that was truly unique in this world.
The whole world talks about the Swedish or Scandinavian choral sound, and what they mean by this is basically the aesthetic, artistic principles and largely also the repertoire that he created with the Swedish Radio Choir and later also with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir.
What he explained about the management of work was very surprising to me: how he treats his singers and how they create their approach to work together. It is hard to explain in detail, but I’ve often thought that without these conversations my life would probably be very different. Then, in 1992, I was 24 years old and it was the very beginning of the restored independence of Latvia.
I had also just begun working in the Latvian Radio Choir and right around the time that Eric Ericson was visiting, I was to have a concert with the choir in the Riga Cathedral where we were performing Sven-Erik Bäck’s Motet.
This Swedish composer was a good friend of Ericson’s and he was one of the people in the composer’s creative field. When our week of master classes came to a close, we threw a party in the Latvian Academy of Music Student Club and they both performed in a duet their comical act that was very famous in Sweden at the time – variations on a Swedish folk song in ten different styles: as if it was written by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Stravinsky; how it would be played by a Swedish folk musician etc. Sven-Erik Bäck played the violin and Eric Ericson was a very good pianist. This duet of theirs was very popular in Sweden.
Did you understand then what the Nordic sound is from his words and actions? Can you describe it?
It is actually quite hard to put into words. It is a very exquisite precision. It is a sound with a full, resonant tone. It is not some squeaking: the sound, especially the upper voices, has a distinct fineness and precision.
These ideas were also largely adapted (perhaps intuitively) by Imants Kokars. If I am not mistaken, they knew each other quite well.
How much of a say will you have in the future creative direction of the Swedish Radio Choir?
I will be the Chief Conductor, but they don’t have a Creative Director as such at all. Sweden has committees – for example, a repertoire committee. I will still have to get acquainted with how this work is managed and how decisions are made. Up until now, I was only a guest, and their relationship to guest conductors is completely different. The choir functions under the Swedish Radio. That means the concerts are usually broadcast or at least recorded and then broadcast and, of course, the interests of the radio must be taken into consideration when selecting the repertoire. The rehearsals take place in the Swedish Radio building. Right over a rocky hill from the building is the Berwaldhallen concert hall where their concert activities take place. There is a tunnel through the rock leading from one to the other.
What will your everyday look like?
I have a three-year contract, starting with autumn 2020. During the first season, I will not yet be able to work with them in my full capacity because I can’t immediately leave my position in the Estonian Chamber Choir in Tallinn. So for a year, I’ll be a chief conductor in two choirs at the same time, which is quite a crazy act to perform.
I’ll terminate my contract with in Tallinn after the next season ends, in the spring of 2021. This will be my seventh season in Estonia.
Do you know what will happen in your first season in Sweden?
I do know the first season, of course.
Already in my previous work with the choir, our repertoire together has been quite diverse. My work with the Swedish Radio Choir during the next season will have a bit of Handel, a bit of Bach, a bit of Poulenc, some Gubaidulina and Ligeti – a very wide spectrum. After that, in the next season we’ll start thinking more strategically – about premieres and recordings.
Will these premieres be of Swedish composers’ works?
Not exclusively. We might have a Latvian work as well. At the moment, it is all just speculation, without any specific plans. I’ve always felt like an agent of Latvian music. I have a really guilty conscience about this from my work in Estonia. I really wanted to create a programme Our Freedom and Your Freedom with concerts in Riga and Tallinn where our choirs would sing the works from the other Baltic states. The Latvian Radio Choir would sing Estonian and Lithuanian pieces and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir would sing Latvian and Lithuanian ones. Sadly, my idea didn’t gain any traction. I can’t just put my foot down and say I want something – it doesn’t work that way since the choirs work closely with other institutions and forces.
Perhaps, I wasn’t persuasive enough. One can always add one or two pieces into a programme but strategic actions need support. It hurts that I wasn’t able to perform Latvian music in Estonia. The choir had other strategic goals, its priority was performing new Estonian music.
You came to conduct a Latvian Radio Choir concert in the DeciBels festival in Cēsis, but it was cancelled after the announcement of the state of emergency on the country.
Do the constraints imposed by the Coronavirus impact your conducting work a lot?
Very much so. I was supposed to fly to Zagreb yesterday to work with the Croatian Radio Choir for the first time in my life. We were going to perform Arvo Pärt’s Canon of Repentance, but the concert has been cancelled. I wouldn’t even be able to get there because the flight was through Vienna, and now Croatia has cancelled all public events just like Latvia. Our event has been postponed indefinitely and we will not be able to perform it sooner than in two years. We could sing in a studio, but who knows what will happen in two weeks. Walking home from Zagreb seems quite far. At the end of March (already after the Croatian project) I was supposed to go to Tallinn and refresh the Easter programme that the Estonian choir was supposed to perform in Espo in Finland with the Tapiola Sinfonietta. At the moment, it looks like that won’t be necessary. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir flew to Oslo last week where they were supposed to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Oslo Symphony Orchestra in a sacred music festival, but they had to fly back the very next day because the concert was cancelled. What can you do, such is life. We are all fragile beings and we, especially the younger generations, have completely forgotten about that.
Of course, people get sick, and in the history of the world global problems are not unheard of for humans as a species.
We’ve come to a moment where it affects us personally. I think the real craziness is still yet to come. A direct confrontation to a truly big existential problem is something foreign to us. It makes me think of how Bach buried eleven (!) of his children. That means that every couple of years, he had to have another funeral for one of his kids.
What kind of relationship with the world did he have when he could just go along with the flow and be absolutely grateful even when living in such unsure times?
The high art has long been criticized for moving away from reality and just poking around their own bellybuttons while sitting on an ivory tower.
Perhaps, it’s something to do with our vulnerability that we’ve swept under the rug? And now we’re having to face it directly.
Are artists vulnerable in this situation?
If there is no concert, the artist doesn’t get paid. I saw that Germany is thinking of providing state support to freelance artists, but at the moment, everyone is still confused and it’s hard to say how the situation with the coronavirus is going to develop. Perhaps, we’ll know more in a couple of weeks. Nobody knows when we’ll be able to start working again. We just have to try to stay positive, stay in touch with our loved ones and avoid visiting the elderly. I probably won’t visit my parents for a while now, my father is ninety, and one can never know what “gifts” you can bring along on your fingertips.
I just have to work. There are a lot of things piled up that I can do on my own – listen to music and read books.
I’ve been running around so much lately, and I really don’t like that anymore. For quite a while, I really enjoyed staying on the edge all the time so that the intense workflow kept me on my toes.
When you’re so focused and under pressure, it seems that the brain chemistry really does give way and you can achieve a lot – all with one go and with excitement. But now the time has come that I want to go deeper into things.
I always try to read about composers whose music I perform, to listen to their music a lot and to dive into their way of thinking.
Although I do have some knowledge of Swedish music, I’ve never studied it in depth. Now is the time to sit, read recordings, read. To get closely acquainted to the Swedish Radio Choir’s past programmes.
How is the communication with Swedes – not only the singers, but also the artistic department?
That depends on how the team spirit evolves; what the relationships are. I currently have a very good feeling about it, because the people are very direct, they say what they think, and at the same time, they are very friendly and positive both towards each other and towards their tasks. They are truly enthusiasts of their fields. They really care that everything happens in the best possible way. But of course, there is always discussion about what the best possible way is. The Swedish society has accomplished a lot through this approach, and I deeply respect that.
I want to understand the needs of the choir as well as those of the Swedish Radio, and the Swedish classical music audiences. When speaking to Swedish journalists, I always repeat and reinforce the strategic stance I find methodologically important: to keep one foo grounded in tradition, honouring and developing the existing identity and character, while stepping into the unknown with the other foot – into the realm of experimental possibility that does not have an easily predictable outcome. A creative institution has to be creative in its core. This is the approach Eric Ericson had as well. That is how we have been working in the Latvian Radio Choir, and that is how I’ve been working in Estonia as well. To reiterate: this is not about specific works or occurrences but about carefully developed relationships and culture as a whole.
Each of the three choirs I’ve worked with so far has a very strong identity and character. The one of the Swedish Radio Choir is wonderful, this collective is like a person. It is important to respect this person. You can’t just barge in out of nowhere like a superstar and start telling everyone about your absolute truth and try reshaping everything in your image – you must develop a relationship with this person. It’s almost like dancing – you have to carefully find the best way to move forward together and to create your relationships.
Usually, a choir has either very strong individual singing technique or good communication and ensemble work. It is rare to find both of these qualities at a level as high as the Swedish Radio Choir’s. The outstanding individual vocal techniques allow every member to perform beautiful solos. The wonderful musical intelligence lets each singer respond to the conductor’s impulses in different ways, helping perform even the most difficult vocal lines. The quality of the group’s chamber music is admirable – they react to one another and hear one another very well, they are sensitive, delicate and very emotionally intelligent. The process of making music with them is full of wonderful reciprocal impulses.
Conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir since 1992.
In 1994, founded the Latvian Radio Chamber Singers
Since the season of 2014/2015 – the creative director and chief conductor of the Estonial Philharmonic Chamber Choir
As a guest conductor, regularly collaborates with the leading European choirs – the RIAS Chamber Choir, the NDR Chamber Choir, the Collegium Vocale Gent, the Flemish Radio Choir etc.
Has received the Order of the Three Stars in Latvia and Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana in Estonia, is a laureate of the Award of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Latvian Grand Music Award (1998), in 2019 received the Annual Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.
The album of Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt’s works by Putniņš and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (BIS Records, 2018) received the Gramophone Award and the Diapason d’Or award
Staffan Becker, the General Manager of the Swedish Radio concert hall Berwaldhallen described Kaspars Putniņš as “one of the world’s most respected choir conductors. He is thoughtful, imaginative, creative, a brilliant musician and an open-minded individual who can really help us to continue the Swedish Radio Choir's successes into the future.”