Riga highlights musical heritage and future | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 30.12.2013
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Riga highlights musical heritage and future

As Capital of Culture, European cities celebrate their creative offerings. From multimedia opera performances to community courtyards, Riga seeks to dazzle its own residents this year, first and foremost.

To kick things off, thousands of participants will take to the streets. They plan to build a human chain, stretching from the old National Library on the edge of Riga's Old Town to the striking new library building on the other side of the Daugava River. Then, they'll pass along books from person to person.

It's a move to symbolize just what Riga 2014 organizers have in mind for the Capital of Culture's theme: change - and how people can harness initiatives to move things together. "First and foremost," said Aiva Rozenberga, program director of the Capital of Culture project, "this is a year for the city's residents." If the locals are happy and enthusiastic, then others will appreciate the event, she added.

Little money, big plans

The 2014 European Capital of Culture, Riga, has to make due with a very modest budget. For five years of preparation and the celebratory year itself, 24 million euros ($33 million) have been budgeted. As a result, unlike other European capitals of culture, investments in infrastructure fell by the wayside. The new National Library, a rising mountain of glass, had already been planned in the 1990s when Riga was still booming.

Until the financial crises in 2008, Latvia and its capital were thriving. But in the months following the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, a major Latvian bank followed suit. And that's when everything came to a standstill: Wages dropped 30 percent, thousands of jobs were cut, pensions were slashed, schools and hospitals shuttered.

The tiny country with its 2.3 million residents stood at the edge of an abyss.

View of the new National LIbrary from across the Daugava River in Riga, Copyright: DW/Silke Bartlick

View of the new National LIbrary from across the Daugava River

Since then, many have emigrated. Others long for former Soviet times when "such financial despair" did not exist, when everyone was employed and the state cared about its residents. Protests were a rarity, everyone just tried to survive.

"By nature, Latvians are lone wolves," said Anna Muhka of the Riga 2014 Foundation, responsible for foreign press. Through cultural means, Latvians will be playfully exposed to another way of thinking in the coming year.

A musical folk

In Latvia, culture means music. "We sing from the cradle to the grave," said Muhka. In every season and for generations. "We were farmers, first for German lords, later for ourselves."

And singing often eases the physical burden of manual labor. But that's not the only time. During the Soviet era, festivals during which Latvian folk songs, or "dainas," were sung strengthened the national identity. From those festivals, recalls Anna Muhka, the "singing Revolution" was born.

Big crowd photo at a singing festival, participants are dressed in national Latvian costumes, Photo: A. Liepins

At a singing festival in Riga, participants wear national Latvian costumes

In Summer 2014, at the World Choir Games, 20,000 singers from nearly 90 different countries will fill Riga's plazas and streets with song. Throughout the year, musical stars like Mariss Jansons, Elina Garanca and Gidon Kremor - all born in Riga - will offer a series of concerts.

On the opening weekend in January, the Latvian National Opera will premiere a multimedia production of Richard Wagner's opera, "Rienzi." The German composer began writing the opera during his tenure as bandmaster in Riga from 1837 - 1839.

Looking back - and ahead

Altogether about 200 cultural projects and events round out the Riga 2014 program. Several spotlight European, as well as Latvian culture. The "Amber Road" project offers a direct bridge from the past to the future, as it examines the cultural significance of the Baltic region's first currency and questions what is exchanged along the Amber Road today, a route which once stretched to Rome and the Black Sea. And it asks the question: What does the future bring?

The new year also means a new currency for Latvia, when it joins the eurozone.

Photo of an apartment complex in the background, a green courtyard in the foreground, Copyright: DW/Silke Bartlick

Projects of all sizes - such as this 'greening' of a community courtyard - should bring citizens together

In January 2014, the National Latvian Art Museum will open the exhibition "1914." Aiva Rozenberga, head of programming, said that planners believed the "beginning of the First World War needed to be present in our program." Nevertheless, the approach is unique. The focus of the exhibition is the position of artists who hail from the 11 countries that were formed after the war - countries like Latvia.

It's no secret that the country experienced various lows throughout its 20th-century history. In 2014 Riga will open a door to one of the country's darkest chapters. The building that housed the former Committee for State Security (KGB), once a place of terror and intimidation, will be opened to the public.

Designing the future

When Aiva Rozenberga, program director of Capital of Culture 2014, speaks about the festivities, she likes to accentuate the smaller projects, the decentralized ones that came together despite minimal funding.

"Sometimes these projects are so small that people in the West might laugh about it," Anna Muhka said. But for Riga, they're extremely important. She mentions a courtyard in the middle of a block of some simple apartment buildings. The residents received professional support to make the area more green, providing children with a playground and adults with a central gathering point.

Within the community, neighbors are growing increasingly more interested in each other. Residents were amazed at how much they could achieve in one day of working together. "Culture," said Rozenberga, "starts from within, in your heart."

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