Whether it’s staging Europe’s largest saxophone festival or commemorating a peaceful protest, Latvijas Koncerti is committed to bringing music to every corner of Latvia. IAM reports from Riga
Born out of Latvia’s independence, which the nation gained in 1991, Latvijas Koncerti is a state-funded concert agency that was established to create a new cultural ecosystem in the country. On its launch, the agency set about recognising – and at the same time demolishing – its former Soviet influences, instead delivering artistic programmes that reflected a new independent status.
‘We developed out of the Latvian Philharmonie,’ says managing director Guntars Kirsis, referring to the organisation’s roots in the USSR’s philharmonic society model, utilised in the early 20th century. Under this structure each Soviet state had a centralised concert hall, symphony orchestra, choir and chamber ensemble. ‘But after our independence, of course we had to make some changes.’
This change was spearheaded by the government, whose culture minister decided to invest in creating new ways of supporting Latvian musicians. Under the old system, the ministry’s only responsibility was for a symphony orchestra, a small concert hall and a choir with very limited resources; moreover most concerts took place in Riga and attracted audiences of around 30 people.
‘The main reason why the government tried to do something different was that in the past, concerts were not organised all over Latvia – they only happened in the capital,’ says Kirsis. ‘This was not what the Minister of Culture wanted to see. In 2004 they asked me to create an area for the development of professional music in Latvia. At that time, I was general manager of the Latvian Radio Choir. I presented my vision for the future of professional music in Latvia. The ministry accepted it and I was invited to run Latvijas Koncerti.’
Over the past decade, Kirsis and his team have made the concert agency a success: the organisation now presents more than 400 events across Latvia, regularly achieving close to capacity sales. Yet it was not an easy transition and Kirsis experienced organisational limitiations under the new system. ‘Without a budget, and a very small team, it was difficult getting organisations to collaborate,’ he says.
But Latvijas Koncerti’s development has been rapid: the small team of nine has swelled to a current staffing level of more than 100 and in 2007 it moved premises from Riga’s old Wagner Hall, which Kirsis says had become unusable, to a renovated venue in Spikeri, the city’s burgeoning and bustling creative quarter.
Likewise, a great deal of work has gone into boosting audience figures for the agency’s events. ‘When I started 10 years ago, the number of visitors we had per concert struggled to reach 50, so the challenge was to raise that amount,’ says Kirsis. ‘We had to create our customer base before the internet boom. Right now we have approximately 15,000 subscribers on our mailing list.’ Kirsis and his team achieved this gradually by inviting influential people and companies to concerts, attracting them with added benefits. Once audiences figures hit 100 attendees, the rest fell into place.
A stumbling block to progress is the lack of venues, which Kirsis overcomes by staging Latvijas Koncerti’s events at theatres, opera houses and outdoor arenas, as well as at the existing concert halls and some churches. The lack of an identifiable building that is related to a specific arts company, such as the Latvian Radio Choir or dance companies, does have its drawbacks.
‘If you say you’re “going to visit the opera house or theatre”, you can visualise a very concrete place, but at Latvijas Koncerti we have no associations with particular companies or buildings, so it’s a problem.’ This is tricky for audience marketing, but Kirsis admits he can see the benefit of being free from a central expensive venue: overheads related to utilites and repairs are almost non-existent.
Whilst Kirsis makes use of a general concert hall in Riga that caters for little under 700 people, and another in Jurmala, he doesn’t think the limited facilities necessarily affects the calibre of international artists he is able to invite to Latvia. The concert agency has hosted City of Birmingham Symphony Orchesrtra, Berlin Philharmonic, and the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne.
Many events are organised on a large public scale: this year’s Early Music Festival will take place in the atmospheric surroundings of Rundāle Palace, an 18th century building steeped in Latvian history. It also programmes Saxophonia, billed as the largest saxophone music festival in Europe; the biannual Vienna Classics Festival; Riga Festival, the largest classical music event in the Baltic region (attracting over 10,000 visitors a year); and an extensive youth learning and participation scheme.
As the only professional agency of its calibre, a role at Latvijas Koncerti is an important first step for many young arts managers. ‘We teach people how to become an arts manager, because when they come to us they’re not ready,’ he says. ‘I would add that in our company, more or less all of our staff have some connection to music. If you know nothing about music, you can’t work here – whether that’s as an accountant or stagehand. Young people applying for a job with us, who have no relationship with music, are not suitable. They are not ready to work; they need to know how a musician feels before going on stage and after performing on stage. For example, artists can be quite nervous and can demand very strange things. You should be ready to help them.’
Though the progression of artists at home, and the training of new talent, remains a priority, Kirsis also has his sights set on the international circuit. ‘We regularly take part in congresses and various events to promote Latvian arts abroad. Promoting Latvian musicians elsewhere is important; that’s why we are collaborating with our Music Information Centre as well. We also find gifted Latvian musicians to promote to international artist management agencies. Similarly, when international conductors work with our orchestras and choirs they see this talent firsthand.’