The path to the diploma or a report from the concert marathon
Bold ventures and Latvian conceptualism. Graduation exams for Academy students
The end of spring and the beginning of summer are usually exam times in both schools and higher education institutions. In the education program of Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, students have to go through a range of theoretical and practical exams, and some even gather audiences officially. This time, students from the Jazz Music Department and the Pedagogy Department of JVLMA underwent specialization and ensemble exams during a three-day marathon at the «Biedrība» club and the VEF Culture Palace.
On May 30, the «Biedrība» club on Merķeļa Street hosted three JVLMA Jazz Music Department students — vocalist Marija Valmiera and drummers Jurģis Lipskis and Rūdolfs Daņiļevičs. On May 31, the popular and jazz music pedagogy final concert exams took place at the same venue for saxophonist Katrīna Sabīne Kalniņa and pianist Santa Kauliņa. On June 1, the last day of the jazz marathon took place in the VEF Culture Palace as part of the «VEF Jazz Club» concert series. In the first part of the day, the final concert exams were performed by professional bachelor’s degree graduates: guitarist Iļja Larionovs, pianist Dāvis Lāpāns, guitarist Arvils Rihards Bernāts, and vocalist Guna Pūcīte-Skujāne. In the evening program, the 4th-year ensemble of the JVLMA Jazz Music Department, which included students from the exchange program from the USA, performed. The evening culminated with the final concert exams of JVLMA Jazz Department professional master’s degree graduates, vocalists Edīte Štrausa and Līga Kupča, and some of the concerts were attended by the creators of JAZZin.lv.
On May 30, the concert was opened with an introduction from one of the prospective graduates, Marija Valmiera, at the «Biedrība» club, where the audience included the examination board and other listeners. The exams were evaluated by Indriķis Veitners, Andrejs Jevsjukovs, Inga Bērziņa, Artis Orubs, and foreign guest — saxophonist and lecturer Dr.Art. Benjamin Nichols.
Drummer Rūdolfs Daņiļevičs started the concert — loudly, bordering on too loud; compositions of rock music legends like Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and others sounded consecutively from the stage, or «pieces,» as Daņiļevičs himself put it, who, it must be admitted, does not speak too well from the stage and does not introduce his compositions too well. It’s good that the board evaluates playing skills and confidence — and this musician is not lacking in that department. The band’s lineup is also rockish, and for a couple of compositions, the current prime minister’s son takes the vocalist role — and almost all forty-five minutes of the performance make one question whether they have really come to listen to the Jazz Department exams. With the composition from «Weather Report» — a mellower ballad selected from this legendary group’s repertoire — it seemed that I was still at a jazz concert to some extent. Although the genres are related, and we continue to talk about the increasing blurring of their boundaries in recent years, one can argue about the choice of the program. However, the drummer found himself in his comfort zone, started to shine during his solo part in the very last composition, and visibly enjoyed what was happening.
The second performance featured Marija Valmiera, who played original compositions and Charlie Parker’s «Red Cross,» for which she translated the lyrics into Latvian herself. Marija skillfully led the event, and her storytelling talent was evident, but a question arose (and persisted for two consecutive days) about why a shortened version of the speech wasn’t recited also in English. It seems that it would have been appropriate before the event to find out if foreigners were in the audience. Since this is an exam in the presence of the jury, I think one jury member would have wanted to learn more about what is on the minds of the prospective graduates and what the audience is laughing at — not to mention exchange students. During the concert, we could enjoy a variety of performances — both a composition by Marija’s husband and stage partner, Toms Valmiers, with folk song lyrics and a vocal and double bass duet, which is Valmiera’s comfort zone, as well as solos where Marija imitated a wind instrument duet with a trombone and a brass group that joined for the final piece to play something in the spirit of Louis Cole, which is quite popular among the new generation of Latvian jazz musicians. It must be acknowledged that there is a noticeable difference in concert quality when a personal approach is felt — and Marija has succeeded in that.
The first day of student concert exams was concluded by drummer Jurģis Lipskis, whom I have been following since his high school years — his ambitious application of folk song arrangements in jazz performed by the Latgalian friends’ ensemble was noticed. And since that moment, Lipskis has noticeably grown — both technically and, presumably, personally — and this inevitably reflects in his music. During the concert exam, we heard jazz standards in Jurģis’s arrangements, with the stage supported by the proud Rēzekne native Ralfs Arbidāns on bass and Matīss Žilinskis on the piano. The trio has good chemistry, and the musicians obviously enjoy what they do, so the audience applause was non-stop — neither after drum solos nor after compositions. Later, the lineup was joined by brass instrumentalists Artūrs Sebris and Gatis Gorkuša and guitarist Svens Vilsons. The performance, with a well-thought-out concert structure, left the impression of a proper jazz concert, which one could be proud of — I don’t know if the students have retained anything from the music management course, but I would personally buy tickets to such a concert. The musicians playing on stage smiled, and Jurģis Lipskis descended from the stage sweaty — it is clear that the work has been done and done well.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hear from the future educators and the continuation of the marathon at the VEF Culture Palace either — notwithstanding that the events were public, everyday commitments are not always favorable for attending concerts. However, the evening of June 1 on the large stage under the «VEF Jazz Club» neon sign left a very good impression. This time, the head of the Jazz Department opened the concert, Dr. Art. Indriķis Veitners — and here we return to stage etiquette once again — why didn’t anyone speak English if there were at least a few foreigners in the audience, one of whom evaluates concert exams?
The evening began with the bachelor’s final course jazz combo or ensemble, which played their own compositions. The soloists paid attention to their stage image and used green accents in their attire, presenting their compositions in the concert. The ensemble was led by saxophonist and composer Toms Rudzinskis, who played the last composition with the ensemble, receiving flowers immediately after and leaving — the act is not condemnable, but the thought inevitably arose that the Latvian stage has always lacked enthusiasm or time to support its own: the evening was not over yet.
The ensemble, in my subjective opinion, played rather loosely. The «success» of each composition depended more on the composer than on the ensemble, as there was a noticeable lack of cohesion and common spark within the ensemble — perhaps due to insufficient time played together, which sometimes led to relying solely on the compositions. Bassist Jānis Pols’ piece had a groovier feel, and pianist Santa Kauliņa’s composition appealed with musical unity. Guna Pūcīte-Skujāne’s song with lyrics by Ojārs Vācietis was convincing, and Guna communicated well with the audience, leading the ensemble at least within the framework of her composition. I conclude that individual programs created by musicians were much more convincing — Latvians seem to be able to take care of themselves more than think about the entire team. Or maybe it’s just that not everyone has learned how to be a bandleader in an ensemble.
After the break, the evening continued with vocalist Edīte Štrausa, who performed Latvian composers’ music in jazz arrangements. The musician herself admitted that one of her favorite composers is Uldis Stabulnieks, immediately placing the audience in her comfort zone by saying that she would gladly be born a bit earlier. I assume that this program struck a nostalgic chord for a significant portion of the audience — and this, in turn, suited the VEF Culture Palace, which had heard such music for decades. Edīte chose professional musicians for her team who have been playing together for several years — and Gunārs Rozenbergs’ music, in turn, has been in their comfort zone. The concert also featured many ballads about love, compositions by Raimonds Pauls, and, in conclusion, the singer’s self-composed «Mans gaismas ceļš» («My Path of Light»). It could be heard that Edīte Štrausa, like the next protagonist of this story and many Latvian singers, received education from Inga Bērziņa — and all of this, along with the artist’s composition introduction, storytelling, and interpretation of meaning, left a good impression of a well-prepared concert program.
Līga Kupča concluded the jazz concert exam marathon with Matīss Žilinskis, Pēteris Liepiņš, and Jurģis Lipskis in the rhythm section. The audience seldom hears Līga outside the school walls in their daily concert life, so it was even more intriguing not knowing what to expect from her. Līga had chosen a program related to choir songs in a new sound to show her love for choral music, and at first, it seemed that the artist herself was unsure of her message. However, after a couple of compositions, she opened up and surprised the audience with perfectly clear singing and conducting on stage — both for the musicians and for herself. The musician splendidly opened up, performing one of Jānis Ivanovs’ vocalizes, and closed the concert with «Mūžība» («Eternity»), leaving the hall in an elevated mood. «Both girls, Edīte and Līga, have chosen very conceptual Latvian programs. It’s a bold venture,» commented Indriķis Veitners.
I also asked for a comment from guest musician and jury member Dr. Benjamin Nichols, who listened to the Latvian Music Academy students three days in a row. This is his first time in Latvia, but he has already heard about our jazz department, its teachers, and musicians from his colleagues in Omaha, who have traveled here and accepted Latvians in their exchange program. Dr. Nichols is currently an assistant professor of saxophone at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he leads the saxophone class (classical and jazz), saxophone quartets, jazz ensemble and teaches improvisation, commercial music theory, and brass instrument playing methodology.
«Great! These are talented students with unique voices, diverse programs and genre influences, as well as original arrangements. I like hearing different influences in their music — it’s great that we inspire each other. Today, I’m listening to Latvian songs in jazz, which inspires me — I’ll go home and compose new music. The great thing about jazz is that it represents freedom, democracy, and self-expression, so each musician has a unique voice that can be brought out by collaborating with each other, just like in the ensemble concert we just heard. Over these three nights, I’ve heard something new for myself, too. Music always demands progress, so I always record my rehearsals and concerts to understand what I can improve, I recommend to all my students to record what they play every day, from rehearsals to concerts, even if it’s just a few minutes — and then listen to it and improve. This is because only music is the true teacher,»