For centuries, the word of God and the presence of God have inspired musicians to create cantatas, oratorios and musical poems thus bringing new meaning to these words through musical expression.
The Festival traditionally takes place at a time when Riga's concert life is scarce but the tourism season is in full swing. The Sacred Music Festival brought a diversity of genre into the festival movement in Latvia with its foremost emphasis on the performance of large-scale vocal, instrumental and a capella pieces.
The First Festival in 1998 presented contemporary Latvian music (Maija Einfelde's Ave Maria, Pēteris Vasks' Dona nobis pacem, Andris Dzenītis' Song of the Sacrament, Artūrs Maskats' St. Francis of Assisi Prayer of Peace, Lūcija Garuta's Meditation, Romualds Kalsons' Recitative, solo and duet, Romualds Kalsons' Farewell), as well as Requiems by Faure, Mozart and Lloyd Webber.
At the second festival (1999) spirituality was manifested in several remarkable compositions - Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Brahms'German Requiem, Faure's Requiem, Poulenc's Gloria, Bruckner's Mass in E minor, Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces and Mozart's Exultate, jubilate. Latvian music was represented by the first performance of Pēteris Butāns' mass Libera me, Domine, as well as Jānis Kalniņš' Music for string orchestra, Artūrs Maskats' Lacrimosa and Leons Amoliņš' Memorial Mass Return of Souls.
Special highlights of the Third Sacred Music Festival (2000) were Bach's High Mass and Handel's Messiah to celebrate the 315th anniversary of both masters. Performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius was dedicated to the centenary since the completion of the oratorio. The festival also included performances of Dvorak's Bible Songs and Requiem. To sustain the tradition of promoting Latvian music, Pauls Dambis' The Riga Book of Psalms was given its premiere performance.
The Fourth Sacred Music Festival was marked by the 800th anniversary celebrations of the city of Riga held in August 2001. The program included premiere performances of newly written Latvian works - Georgs Pelēcis' oratorio God is Love, Rihards Dubras' Mass Signum Magnum and Maija Einfelde's oratorio Morning Liturgy, as well as generally approved classical values - Haydn's The Creation, Mozart's Requiem, and two programs of sacred music by Monteverdi, Schutz, Gabrieli, Tavener, Taneyev and Kodaly.
In 2002 we met in the first jubilee - the Fifth Sacred Music Festival where the world famous Georgian composer Giya Kancheli lent a special aura. The composer's presence at the concert which featured his Psalm 23 from his prayer Exil and Styx was a highlight of the festival. Each subsequent concert, too, brought its own musical flavour and uniqueness: Latvian premieres were Frigyes Hidas' Requiem, Juep Franssens' Harmony of the Spheares, Leos Janacek's Mša Glagolskaja and Hector Berlioz's oratorio L'Enfance du Christ, as well as rarely staged Felix Mendelssohn - Bartoldi's oratorio Elijah.
In 2002 the galaxy of performers included conductors Jānis Puriņš and Wolfgang Schofer (Germany), violist Daniel Raiskin (The Netherlands), organist Kristīne Adamaite, soloists- Egils Siliņš, Marina Tropina, Juris Ādamsons and Giedrius Zalys (Lithuania).
The Festival of 2003 presented to its listeners latest pieces of contemporary music and also some premiers of classical music never before performed in Riga. Conductor Andress Mustonen introduced listeners to the renaissance sacred music of Spain and Portugal Frey Manuel Cardosso Missa pro defunctis; premiere in Latvia C. Franck's oratory Christ's last seven word on cross. Choir Symphony by Latvian composer Pēteris Butāns. Special events of the festival - concerts of Henrick Mikolai Gurecky and Arvo Part with participation of composers.
The festival of 2004 brought new and interesting musical meetings with Latvian composer Imants Ramiņš who is living and working in Canada and English composer Sir John Tavener. This festival was significant also with the premiere of Latvian composer's Indra Riše oratory Song of songs, it was also broadcasted on Euroradio live.
The 8th Festival in 2005 can be characterized by terms synthesis and spirituality. On this festival there were performed works of different ages starting from G. Donizetti till modern authors, e.g. premiere of Ēriks Ešenvalds' Passion and Resurrection and Mazā pasija by Latvian composer Imants Zemzaris. Interesting programs were concerts of Belgian and Georgian sacred music, Berlin Mass and Te Deum by Arvo Part. Special guest of the festival was Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.
9th International Sacred Music Festival was organized by State Choir Latvija in collaboration with Latvijas Koncerti. It took place from August 22 till Septbember 11, 2006 in Riga, Jurmala and Liepaja. Just like all the previous years the organizers were following traditions - charity concert, priemier of original works by Latvian composers (Fides. Spes. Caritas by Andris Dzenītis, the work received The Great Music Award 2006; and Agape by Daina Klibiķe, which was dedicated to counter tenor Sergejs Jēgers); special guest of the Festival was world famous Alexander Knaifel. Among the artists of the Festival there were soloists and conductors from Austria, England, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, Lithuania and Estonia.
Important accents of the Festival were concerts devoted to the 250th anniversary of the great composer V.A. Mozart with performances of motets Exultate, jubilate, Kronungsmass and Requiem. In the closing concert of the Festival artistic director Māris Sirmais had chosen War Requiem by Benjamin Britten in memoriam of 5th anniversary since terrorists attacked World Trade Centre in New York. With performance of the War Reqiuem was dignified memory of all the terrorism victims.
From August 14 until September 11, 2007 the 10th International Sacred Music Festival was celebrated. State Choir Latvija under conduction of Māris Sirmais gave Latvian premiere of Bernstein's Mass. Celebrant role was brilliantly performed by great Broadway Baritone Douglas Webster (USA). For this production State Choir was nominated for annual cultural award, presented by biggest daily news paper Diena and Great Music Award.
Two more events of the Festival were nominated for Diena award - performance of Requiem by G. Verdi on the Festival opening concert, August 14; and also closing concert of September 11, which was also an opening concert of Poetry Days and was organized together with Lativan Writers' Society and independent producer Margita Zālīte.
11. Sacred music festival in 2008 was presented much musical amazement. In festival opening concert first performance in Latvia was for Sofias Gubaidulinas work St. Johns Passion and great composer of this work was special guest.
In festival program were include works of such a great composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber which was performed together with Liepaja Amber sound symphony orchestra, and latvian new composers Ēriks Ešenvalds and his opera Jozeph is a fruitful bough.
Special accent was on work of Raimonds Tiguls and Nora Ikstena, because this was a first performance to them new composition Dod, Dieviņi. In performance was used video and light effects, there were solists Intars Busulis, Sergejs Jēgers and a folk singer Biruta Ozoliņa. Together with them on stage were chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Riga and bagpipe and drum music group Auļi. Special scenography was made by very talented scenograph and artist Gints Gabrāns.
In concert in Jurmala choir preformed compositions of new composer Rihards Zaļupe. One more time choir performed Rihards Dubra work for nine saxophones, choir and organ. On this concert special guest was Maki Kaisai form Japan and Jerusalem saxophone quartet.
In festival closing concert which was conduct by great polish conductor Zbigniew Graca were performed K. Penderecki Polish Requiem.
12th International Sacred Music Festival brought two Latvian premieres of Also sprach Nietzsche and Supreme Silence by Peeter Vähi (Estonia), performed by musicians from Estonia. In 22nd of August in Riga Dome Cathedral another Latvian premiere – Russian Requiem by Lera Auerbach. Russian – Jewish composer now lives in New York. The special event of the festival was Jeanne d’Arc at Stake by Arthur Honegger, in Riga St. Peter’s Church on 28th of August. Artists – State Choir Latvija, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Riga Dome Boy’s Choir. Jeanne d’Arc – probably the greatest actress of Latvian theatre today – Rēzija Kalniņa. Director Indra Roga, stage-design by Martiņš Vilkārsis. Conductor Māris Sirmais. The closing concert of the Festival took place in Riga Dome Cathedral, 3rd of September. State Choir Latvija, youth choir Kamēr… and Latvian National Symphony Orchestra performed Nelson Mass by Joseph Haydn; in honor of 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn, there were performed Psalms op. 78,1, op. 78,2 and op. 78,3 and world premiere of Symphonic Chant by Latvian composer Līga Celma.
13th International Sacred Music Festival (2010) was organized by State Choir Latvija and it took place from August 22 till September 11 in Riga, Jurmala and Liepaja. The opening concert on August 19 took place in Liepaja and choir together with Liepaja Amber Sound Symphony Orchestra performed Leons Amoliņš Historical Liturgy which was world premiere. Also this music piece was performed in Riga on August 20, when choir first performed Pēteris Butāns Cantata for choir and orchestra.
Next two concerts on August 24 and 25 took place in Riga and Jurmala, were performed by Emo Ensemble. Ensemble performed music by Finnish composers. Concert was conducted by Pasi Hyökki. In festival program were include works of such a great composers as G. Rossini and his work Stabat Mater, G.Verdi with his composition Four Sacred Pieces. Also this concert brings a wonderful possibility for Latvian audience, because they met conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi, who was conductor in the festival 2007. In September 2 choir performed concert program named Dixit Dominus and it included musical works by A. Vivaldi, G.F. Handel, W.A. Mozart, G. Kancheli on theme Dixit Dominus. This concert was conducted by Andress Mustonen and performed by State Choir Latvija, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. The closing concert of 13th International Sacred Music Festival was dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the great and world-wide famous Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. Composer visited Riga and took part in concert as a guest. Choir together with conductor Maris Sirmais first performed G. Kancheli work Do not grieve and also audience were able to hear composition Styx.
14th International Sacred Music Festival took place from August 13 till August 28, 2011 in Riga and Liepaja. The opening concert on August 13 took place in Riga Cathedral. In concert programm - contemporary american choir music by David Lang, Kamran Ince, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Edwin Fissinger, Morten Lauridsen, Kile Smith, Carlyle Sharpe, Stephen Stuckey. Concert was performed by State Choir Latvija and conducted by Danald Nally (USA). Next two concerts on August 16 and 17 took place in Liepaja and Riga. In program were world premiere of Paradise by Kristaps Pētersons, Pawel Lukaszewski's Veni creator and Latvian premiere of his 2nd Symphony Festinemus amare homines and also Ēriks Ešenvalds Clouds. Concert was performed by State Choir Latvija, Liepaja Amber Sound Symphony Orchestra, Kristīne Gailīte, Liene Kinča and Sandis Šteinbergs. Conductor Māris Sirmais.
One more world premiere in festival was on August 19 in Riga St. Peter’s Church. Estonian composer Peeter Vähi Mary Magdalene Gospel was performed by State Choir Latvija, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Sevara Nazarkhan (Uzbekistan) as Mary Magdalene, Priit Volmer, Tönis Mägi and conductor Risto Joost (Estonia).
On August 27 and 28 in the Latvian Railway History Museum in Riga the festival organizers offered year’s special production. Each concert encompased two pieces by stylistically different composers – Luis Bacalov’s Misa Tango and Arthur Honeger’s The Dance of the Dead. A great team was gathered to prepare this production – the master of Argentinian bandoneon Hector Ulises Passarella (Argentina / Italy), soloists Inga Šļubovska, Ilona Bagele and Jānis Apeinis; Olga Zitluhina with her dance group and choreography; Mārtiņš Vilkārsis (stage design); Margita Zālīte as the director; State Choir Latvija, Latvian National Symphonic Orchestra and conductor Māris Sirmais.
In 2012 State Choir Latvija celebrated its 70th anniversary. From August 28 until September 8, the 15th International Sacred Music Festival was celebrated. State Choir Latvija opened the festival with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and presented the premiere of Pawel Lukaszewski’s 3rd Symphony. The concert held in Riga St. Peter’s Church on August 28. In concert together with choir performed Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, soloists – Inga Šļubovska, Liene Kinča, Rafal Bartminski (Poland) and conductor Māris Sirmais. August 30 in Liepaja in colloboration with classical music festival Liepājas vasara and August 31 in Riga, Georg Friedrich Handel’s Opus Alexander’s Feast was performed. Participants of concert – State Choir Latvija, Liepaja Amber Sound Symphony Orchestra, soloists – Elīna Šimkus, Boriss Stepanov (Russia) and Kalvis Kalniņš and conductor Risto Joost (Estonia).
In Festival world premieres expierenced three pieces – Ēriks Ešenvalds In Paradisum for choir, cello and viola, Imants Zemzaris Evening songs for choir and piano, and Goran Gora opus Ararat for choir and duduk. Concert took place in The Riga Old St. Gertrude's Church on 4th of September. In concert together with choir Latvija performed soloists – Aldis Liepiņš, Kristīne Adamaite, Liene Kļava, Māris Jēkabsons, Ēriks Kiršfelds, Armands Zaubergs, Edgars Bārzdiņš and Uģis Krūskops; conductor Māris Sirmais. After listeners request, in concert again performed Rihards Dubra composition „Accedite Gentes”.
September 8 in Riga Cathedral, concluding the Sacred Music Festival, were ambitious concert with John Rutter. International Sacred Music festival guest of honor was world – famous british composer and conductor John Rutter. In final concert Rutter also conducted his works Te Deum, Gloria and Requiem. In concert participated – State Choir Latvija, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and soloist Elīna Šimkus.
For the 16th year State Choir Latvija and its artistic director and conductor Māris Sirmais invited to International Sacred Music festival. From August 17 till September 7 State Choir Latvija performed in six festival concerts. The opening concert was in Liepaja St. Joseph`s Church on August 17. Together with Liepaja Amber Sound Symphony Orchestra, State Choir Latvija performed choral music by Ēriks Ešenvalds and The Deum by Arvo Pärt. Conductor Māris Sirmais.
On August 24 in Riga St. Peter`s Church there was two Grammy price nominees in one concert. One of them - world-famous conductor Stephen Layton, the other - composer Uģis Prauliņš. In program world premiere of O lux beatisima by Uģis Prauliņš and Latvia premiere of Psalm 67 by Ēriks Ešenvalds. Conductor Stephen Layton. In concert also listeners were able to hear Figure Humaine by Francis Poulenc and Hymn to St. Cecilia by Benjamin Britten. On August 27 in Riga Cathedral Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and State Choir Latvija performed New Jerusalem by Andres Uibo, Evening Prayers by Joseph Bardanashvili and Prayer for Jerusalem by John Tavener. Conductor Andres Mustonen.
On September 4 concert Georgian Motifs took place in Riga Cathedral. Maestro Raimonds Pauls shared his improvisation of his old friend`s Gija Cancheli themes. Also in concert State Choir Latvija, group Instrumenti and vocal group Didgori from Georgia. Conductor Māris Sirmais. On September 5 in Riga St. Peter`s Church vocal group Didgori performed Geaorgian traditional and sacred songs, which comes from different regions of Georgia. The final concert of 16th International Sacred Music Festival was on September 7. It took place in Riga St. Peter`s Church. In program Giuseppe Verdi Requiem, one of the greatest creations of this composer. Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, State Choir Latvija and as gueast artists Liene Kinča (soprano), Ksenia Dudnikova(mezzo-soprona, Russia), Rihards Mačanovskis (baritone) and Rafal Bartminski (tenor, Poland). Conductor Andris Poga.
17th International Sacred Music Festival took place from August 21 till September 11, 2014 in Riga and Liepaja. The opening concert on August 21 took place in Liepaja at St. Joseph's Cathedral. In concert programm - Francis Poulenc Concerto for organ, strings and timpani, Gloria, Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings, Charles - Marie Widor Toccata, Arvo Part Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Participants of the concert: State Choir Latvija, Liepāja Amber Sound Symphony orchestra, brilliant organist Iveta Apkalna, soprano Inga Šļubovska and conductor from Azerbaijan Yalchin Adigozalov. A repeat performance was held the following night at Riga's Cathedral.
On august 26 at Riga Cathedral three young composers Kārlis Lācis, Kaspars Zemītis and Rihards Dubra debut their new work to the world under the conductor Māris Sirmais together with State Choir Latvija, guitar player Kaspars Zemītis, two percussionists Elīna Endzele and Ernests Mediņš, organist Kristīne Adamaite, cellist Guna Āboltiņa and two French horn players Aivars Vadonis and Krišjānis Rērihs.
But the greatest anticipation at the International Sacred Music Festival this year where arrival of guest of honor Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki, who were an audience member for his own works Missa brevis and Te Deum. Concert took place at Riga St.Peters church and were performed by state Choir Latvija, Latvian National Symphony orchestra, Boris Stepanov (tenor, Russia), Ksenia Dudnikova (mezzo-soprano, Russia), Natalia Kreslina (soprano), Evgeny Stavinsky (bass, Russia) and conducted by Aleksander Humala from Belarus.
Latvia central-western town Saldus in Kurzeme also hosted a free entrance sacred music concert on September 2, at its Catholic Church of St.Peter and Paul.
The 17th International Sacred Music Festival closed on September 11 at the Great Hall of University of Latvia with a concert dedicated to the memory of late British composer John Tavener. Tavener, who would have turned 70 this year, was a guest of the festival ten years ago for a concert of his works at St.Peter’s Church.
In 2015 The 18th International Sacred Music Festival ring in when the deep bass and clear soprano voices recealed the celestial beauty of sacred music by Alexander Gretchaninoff in the reading of Vladimir Kontarev, Professor of the Moscow state Conservatory. Festival opening concert took place at Rigas St. Peter's Church on August 18.
Second concert of the festival as tradition opened new horizons - there were three gentlemen: the talented percussionist Rihards Zaļupe created CREDO, an opus like a meditative desert in a cool night bringing together the sacred chants from the Orthodox, shamanistic and Buryat traditions. This were a second contribution by Jānis Aišpurs to the repertoire of the choir Latvija. Jēkabs Jančevskis had his say - the legend of Mindaugas with Zane Jančevska in the role of narrator.
On August 27 in Liepāja and August 28 in Riga audience met the high-powered temper of the extraordinary and charismatic Estonian Andres Mustonen. In the music of the most praised Israeli composer Betty Olivero, he brought together the brilliant sonority of the choir Latvija and Giora Feidman, the world- famous Klezmer Clarinet: here the rich spiritual heritage of Israeli people met the challenging temper of klezmer music.
Festival closing concert repertoire choosed by Andris Poga was an extremely potent dose: the majestic pensiveness of Germans and Austrians crowned with the sublime and firm stone cathedral - Mass No. 3 in F minor by Anton Bruckner. The immensely religious composer, who used to keep the Bible in his pocket, reminds of the everlasting human values uttering them in a voice both divine and human.