The first big band competition for young Baltic composers
A beginning of a new tradition — to unite the three Baltic states in big band music and motivate young composers to create new modern musical material
The last two years in the life of the Latvian Academy of Music have been full of adventures. Starting with the centenary’s celebrations, moving on to the celebration of a decade of jazz department being a part of formal higher education in Latvia, then the pandemic. But I would like to talk more about two concerts that had to occur during these complicated times, where every live event is under a huge question mark — I’m talking about the two concerts of the Big band competition. The initiators of the invent are Indriķis Veitners, the head of JVLMA jazz department, and Kārlis Vanags, the leader of Latvian Radio Big Band. Last February, after the concept, strategy, and all that encompasses the competition were thoroughly worked through, a call to apply was published. Applicants had to be under 30 years old and had to be currently residing in one of the Baltic states or be a part of one of the schools in the Baltics (even if the study was during an Erasmus exchange program). So as a result, the semifinals consisted of artists, that both resided in the Baltics and that had been away for quite a while: Anna Vibe, Arta Jēkabsone, Elza Ozoliņa, Jānis Rubiks, Krists Saržants, Reinis Ašmanis, Svens Vilsons, and Zane Aišpure (at the time of application submission Švēde-Grīnberga); as you can see, all of these people are Latvian, but there were tho other names — Iris Eckert from Germany (a former Erasmus exchange student ar JVLMA) and Kristina Bianca Rantala from Estonia. The semifinal concert was planned for April.
The compositions were to be performed by the JVLMA and RDKS big band with Beāte Zviedre on vocals, but since the pandemic made some corrections into our daily routines, the concert had been postponed until last year’s October. So, on October 8, the great hall of the Academy of music was finally filled with jazz. The final concert took place on December 4th in Spikeri concert hall, but unfortunately, with no listeners, because of the coronavirus restrictions, the concert took place in an online space. But also because of that, we still have the chance to enjoy the show, since it’s available in the archives of Latvijas Koncerti Facebook page . This time the compositions were performed by Latvian Radio Big Band, again with Zviedre on vocals. The competition results were announced the same evening, the first prize was awarded to Kristina Bianca Rantala, second to Jānis Rubiks, and third to Reinis Ašmanis. All in all, 23 composers applied, eight participated in the semifinals, and 3 in the finals. Members of the jury were representatives of all three Baltic states — Raul Sööt from Estonia, Jievaras Jasinskis from Lithuania, and Rolands Kronlaks from Latvia. That’s it for the short summary; now, I would like to share my personal impressions and contemplations about the competition.
The idea of the competition itself, in my opinion, is excellent. If we go way back in time and look at the Latvian jazz scene before World War II, we’ll find various big bands and orchestras that performed jazz compositions; also, the USSR times graced us with some fine examples. Unfortunately, time had not been kind to the orchestral music genre, and at some point, they almost disappeared with only a few of them left; that’s why it brings me such joy to see the rebirth of big band music now. Today we have up to ten big bands playing on a professional level and that are very active, with concerts almost every week, which is quite a lot for our small country. The fact that several high schools and universities have their own big bands paints a pretty picture; it clearly shows an interest in this type of music. I can’t say much about the situation in Estonia and Lithuania. Still, I know that jazz music is represented on a very high level there, so I can guess that the big band music genre is also flourishing there. In fact, I think that it was just a matter of time until an idea like that would be realized in one of the countries, so I’m pretty proud that we got to be the first to take this creative initiative.
Now, this is something we can always talk a lot about, and we can always find things to criticize. This time I will also join the ranks of critics. I was lucky enough to attend the semifinals myself, so I got to hear the performance of the JVLMA & RDKS big band in person. It is important to note a crucial fact — the big band is made of 70% high schoolers, so it was foolish of me to expect them to perform the compositions that were composed for a professional big band without a hitch. And there were a lot of hitches. Yes, they tried, but the reality is that the program was too challenging for their age and level of expertise. And unfortunately, that was predictable. I have my doubts that the guidelines of the competition stated something along the lines of: «keep in mind that during the semifinals your compositions will be performed by a big band consisting mostly of teenagers», no, when you think about big bands, you expect a certain level of mastery, virtuosity, because this music requires some of that. Naturally, the competing composers created compositions that represented their artistry without considering the level the performing ensemble might be at. The members of the jury did receive sheet music and could follow it while the big band played, but it doesn’t really help in this case; it only shows the jury where exactly the big band got it wrong and didn’t give the chance to evaluate the tunes adequately, objectively.
Another important topic, which isn’t really anything new, since it’s being discussed by both students and the audience for at least a decade — the lack of an appropriate concert hall that could host a big band. The Academy of Music, or rather the building that is the home to the academy, was built in the times when jazz music hadn’t yet got a chance to reach our territories and invade academia, so space was created to accommodate classical music — choirs, orchestras and so on. And that’s quite logical because who could have imagined some hundred years ago that this building would host a concert with so many horns, and then some amplified guitars, etc. but right now the situation is quite dire since the big band we have (and not only the big band, but also other jazz bands that exist in the academy) literally have close to no space to perform at. It is almost impossible to enjoy big band music in the great hall, there’s no discussion about that, but the sad reality is that there just isn’t an alternative. There could be another option, like the «Organ Hall» or the «Stone Hall», but the first one is much too small, so the big band would have to play in a more subdued manner, which would affect the tunes drastically, and the second hall is basically a bar for parties, with round tables, low ceilings, and a pretty small stage. The answer to this dilemma would be to try and look for another space somewhere outside the walls of the Academy of Music, but then there’s the issue of money, which is always missing. I do hope that next year this will somehow all be resolved.
The finals of the competition with Latvian Radio Big Band and Beāte Zviedre did sound better, which was entirely predictable since LRBB is a professional orchestra with both experience and virtuosity, every member of the ensemble is a professional musician, some with various decades of professional musicianship behind their belts. Beāte Zviedre also is an experienced singer. The acoustics of the Spīķeri concert hall is better suited for big band music, and the online concert that we all got a chance to enjoy for absolutely no fee was delightful. I’m only sad that only the three finalists got to hear their tunes performed by a professional orchestra. I can speculate that maybe the finalists would be different if all the tunes were played by the LRBB (because let’s admit, that some tunes were played with a lot of mistakes, that had to affect the jury…), but maybe the results would be the same, nobody really knows. And I’m sincerely happy for all participants, it was an excellent idea and a wonderful initiative. I am glad and proud that our Academy of Music follows the trends of music and now arranges events not only for the representatives of classical genres but includes jazz. There were times when every jazz concert that took place in the academy had to have a classical cherry on top, but now jazz is becoming more and more independent, and the administration can acknowledge that it does have its listeners.
And about the competition — how does this saying go? The first pancake is always tricky, but that also means that there’s room for improvement, growth, development, and that’s definitely something I wish JVLMA would continue doing; that way, I’m sure each next time will be better and better. There’s no other way than up!