Asian Choral Association
Jānis Liepiņš: Choir to Orchestra
Janis Liepins is one of the rising orchestral conductors in Europe, having been recently appointed as the Erste (first) Kapellmeister of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, after being the chief conductor of the award-winning Youth Choir "Kamer" from Latvia.
His attention was brought to me by Vytautas Miskinis in 2014, when we were in Latvia adjudicating for the World Choir Games. Janis went to visit the hotel we were staying in, and when he was getting some wine from the restaurant, Vytautas said, "this young boy, he is so talented. He won in the conducting competition where I was in the jury."
Vytautas was referring to the Teodors Reiters Choral Conducting Competition and Janis remembers this "stressful experience" very well. It was stressful, but, very fulfilling. It was maybe the first push in his career that made him follow his path as a conductor. Before that, he wasn't sure what he wanted in the future... as long as it was related to music.
The competition was in three parts. The first part, you conducted in front of two pianos. Then the jury picked out 12-16 people to go to the second stage, working with a choir. He had 10-15 minutes to rehearse the choir with a song that was assigned the prior evening by lottery. He was still in high school that time, around 18 years old, already involved with Youth Choir "Kamer" with Maris Sirmais as his teacher. The competition was a good way to know one's strength, a gauge to know what you are capable of. He was supposed to apply to the same contest 1 or 2 years before but he wasn't allowed because he was too young.
Officially, he was already assistant conductor of Kamer that time, but he didn't conduct a lot of songs during concerts. He was mostly like a choirmaster. For example, if Maris wanted to learn a difficult piece with the choir, he would split the work between himself and Janis, and they would work with either the male or female voice groups, so that the rehearsal process became more efficient.
Janis always felt that he was doing real work with Maris because he knew about Kamer even before joining the group. He thought that Kamer was a great choir and it was an honor and big responsibility to work there. The first big project that he worked on, not only regarding the choir's history, but also the global choral movement, was the World Sun Songs. There, he felt that his input was very meaningful because he got to work with the people involved in the choir, and in the production.
During the time he was assistant conductor, Janis was younger than most members of Kamer. The older members thought that they were wiser than the young assistant conductor, whom they thought, needed to earn their respect. It was a problem for Janis specially during his first year, because he felt the singers were testing him, mostly how he reacts to their taunts. The difficult part was when Maris was away for one month and Janis had to do all the rehearsals by himself. That time, they were learning the Alfred Schnittke Choir Symphony. The piece divides the choir into four groups, a huge score, and was way too difficult for him. But he had to "power" himself through it, and was able to organize and accomplish the rehearsals. It was a good training like throwing one's self into water, like you were fighting for your life.
In a way, he was fighting for their respect.
After "powering" through these challenges and earning the respect of the "older" singers in Kamer, Janis' first major contribution as an assistant conductor was during his bachelor's degree exam at the music academy. Janis conducted a two-part concert, with a cappella songs, and Puccini's Messa di Gloria with orchestra. Maris was not involved in this program so much. He was more like a bystander. He looked at the process, how Janis prepared the choir during rehearsal and just helped with some suggestions, but he was not actively involved. This might have been the revelation for Maris, that he thought he can trust Janis with Kamer.
The concert was, of course, a success, as were the following years that Janis became the chief conductor of Kamer. He brought the choir to another peak in its history, in a short time, winning many international awards, which is common knowledge for us.
Janis always had a dream of trying to do more, and explore different possibilities in conducting. He always thought that if he stayed in one position, it would make him stagnant, although he did not have clear plans of becoming an orchestra conductor. He just followed his life, and his fate. He received invitations as a guest conductor for orchestras while he was working with Kamer and accepted these later on. He also received an offer to work as conductor of the Latvian National Opera.
At one point, Janis felt that he needed to balance his life equally, although it was more like being pulled from two different directions: choir and orchestra. He thought that if he really wanted to become good at something, he should try to focus a bit more on just one aspect of his career. This philosophy might have been one of the reasons why he decided to let go of Kamer and focus more at the Latvian National Opera.
He also had worked for 12 years with Kamer: 6 years as assistant conductor, and 6 years as chief conductor. And although he loved the singers very much, he felt that he wasn't anymore sure if he could bring something new to the table. Kamer was an amateur choir, and at one point, one could only do some much with amateurs. He cannot ask them to act like professionals who go to rehearsal every day, because they had different jobs during the day.
Janis' agent asked him if he wanted to audition in Mannheim, Germany. It was quite a difficult time because he had a new production at the Latvian Opera, but he went anyway. He was only given a 30-minute rehearsal with the orchestra in Mannheim, as they held this audition for many applicants. There were other conductors when he came. After this 30-minute rehearsal, they wanted him to be a guest conductor, to do one performance from their usual repertoire. They picked only 3 or 4 guest conductors. In a way, it was like a small conducting competition.
The organizers assigned Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and this was a concert performance, not an opera. They could have picked anything, so Janis felt quite lucky to be assigned this piece because it was a wonderful, majestic, epic piece, although he had not conducted this piece before and only sang in the boys' choir part previously. He prepared very well for this, but what was incredible was the fact that they didn't offer any rehearsal. They told him to just come and do the concert.
He arrived at Nationaltheater Mannheim, put on his tailcoat, and just went on the stage and saw this huge orchestra, this huge choir, and more than 1,000 people in the audience. Janis shook the hand of the concert master and then started conducting, although he never met these people before in his life.
Janis Liepins knew it was the final part of the audition.
After the concert, he was conferred the position of Erste Kapellmeister of the Nationaltheater Mannheim.
video above, Janis conducting Kamer in 2011
Janis as guest conductor at the Taipei International Choral Festival 2019
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