Riga, tête-à-tête

Like many choral music enthusiasts, we’ve been enchanted for years by the artistry and composition coming out of the Baltic States. Stockholm to RigaBut frankly, aside from echoes of Tormis and Pärt, we knew next to nothing about the region. So on our last weekend abroad, we made a somewhat rash decision to hop the 80-minute flight from Stockholm for a weekend in Riga, Latvia.

We were drawn by a headline concert of the 2015 Rudens Kamermūzikas Festivāls (Autumn Chamber Music Festival), which would bring together the Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in a live encore performance of their 2014 Grammy-winning album, Adam’s Lament.Riga Cathedral tapestry The program, a text by Orthodox Saint Silouan set to music by Arvo Pärt, also marked the composer’s 80th birthday. Per the organizers, The motto of the festival is tête-à-tête, ‘a private conversation’ in French, emphasizing the uniquely intimate chamber musicianship atmosphere and the very special dialogue that takes place between the audience and musicians.

Beyond the rhetoric, even a couple days in town made clear the ideological weight of music for this former Soviet State. The reclaiming of Latvian national identity in the late 19th century revolved around the propagation of songs and singing groups, still celebrated in the massive Vispārējie Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju Svētki (Latvian Song and Dance Festival) every five years. The Latvian Presidency of the European Union closed this June with a 6,000-voice choral concert. So it was no surprise that the performance in the cavernous Rīgas Doms (Riga Cathedral) was packed and, suffice to say, transcendent.

Apart from the music, we went with few expectations; and Riga caught us by surprise. From the soaring architecture of Svētā Pētera Baznīca (St Peter’s Church) and the Melnglavju Nams (House of the Blackheads, a 14th-century mercantile exchange) just outside our hotel, to the expansive gardens of Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill) Park, haunting relics at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, and the operatic baritone busking in the Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square), Riga was a stunning integration of old-world artistry and modern, multinational style.

By night, the streets were lit by illuminated sculptures and vodka bars, bridges and skyscrapers glittering off the Daugava River.

We spent a rainy Sunday exploring the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, one of the oldest artifact collections in Europe. The fresco of a beneficent Peter the Great, embellished with an actual cannon ball embedded in the wall, felt emblematic of the exhibit’s tangible violence and glory.

In our few days there, Latvian cuisine presented as simple but savory. The cavernous underground pub Alus Arsenals served us Lāčplēsis, a pork leg dish named for the hero of a 19th-century national epic (or possibly for the brewery by the same name), memorable even to my limited meat tooth. Other local restaurants reflected Latvia’s heritage as a trade and naval hub for Europe and the former Soviet Union: Armenian basturma (air-dried beef) with homemade lavash and adžika (pepper sauce) at Armenia Restorāns was a particularly pungent wonder.

Ever with an eye to research, we were thrilled to discover Latvia’s traditional herbal liqueur, Rīgas Melnais Balzams (Riga Black Balsam). In the family of Jägermeister, the 90-proof spirit claims 24 ingredients formulated by chemist Abraham Kunze in 1789; it gained popularity for curing Catherine the Great of colic or, possibly, poisoning. Though the medicinal flavor was offputting straight up, I loved the Hot Balsam variation served at several cafes with warm blackcurrant juice and cinnamon. Sadly, the traditional ceramic packaging discouraged us from taking home more than a few samples; a clerk assured us the distillery couldn’t possibly use plastic, as the Balsam would eat right through. (This seemed unlikely, but maybe just as well to limit our intake).

After the past few months expanding our world, Riga for me was a humbling reminder just how little we’ve seen, and a tantalizing taste of how much more is out there.