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Work of the Week – Pēteris Vasks: Symphony No. 2

Containing both immense soundscapes and delicate, lyrical melodies, Pēteris Vasks’ Symphony No. 2 for large orchestra is a work that oscillates between extremes. On 1 February 2019, the Winnipeg New Music Festival will perform the symphony’s North American premiere in Canada led by conductor Daniel Raiskin.

Commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and premiered at the BBC Proms in 1999, Symphony No. 2 is a vast work written as a single movement and lasting 40 minutes. In the 20 years since its premiere, the symphony has received many repeat performances in Europe has been the basis for three different ballet productions.

Pēteris Vasks – Symphony No. 2: a powerful work

Vasks intention for Symphony No. 2 was to express the suffering experienced by the Latvian people under German and Russian occupation throughout the twentieth century. The weight of this subject casts a dark atmosphere over much of the symphony, which is prone to loud, frightening passages. Despite this, there is a duality to the symphony in which moments of palpable fear and desperation are contrasted by moments of optimism and hope, musically characterised by melancholic, gentle themes and bright string-sounds, as well as in folk-like tunes and birdsong motives.

“In my opinion, every honest composer should search for solutions for the crises of his time and strive for a better future. A composer can demonstrate how humankind can prevail against its own self-destructive nature. If we can find a solution or reason for hope, then I will gladly make it my business to join the exploration.”
Pēteris Vasks

This position is informed by Vasks’ own life experiences. Born in Latvia in 1946 during its occupation by the USSR, Vasks suffered from discrimination as the son of a Baptist pastor and moved to Lithuania to study the double bass. After studying, he began a performing career with a number of Latvian orchestras and developed an interest in composition, starting composition studies in Riga in the 1970s. Although initially Vasks suffered from Soviet censorship due to his beliefs and artistic convictions, today he enjoys a position as one of the most frequently performed composers in the world.

On 30 January, Vasks’ meditation for violin and string orchestra, Vientuļais eņģelis (Lonely Angel) and a setting of Dona nobis pacem for mixed choir and string orchestra will also be presented at the festival.