November saw the powerful début of the Baltic Project Choir, founded and led by Lithuanian choir conductor Sigita Žurauskaitė, in the northern city of Groningen, the Netherlands. The two-night program is part of a long-anticipated cultural initiative to bring Baltic choral tradition to new audiences abroad, featuring a compilation of traditional folksong arrangements and modern classical compositions by Baltic composers.
At the heart of Groningen city, the intimate interior space of an old Catholic church resounded with the most astonishing harmonies as a total of ten songs were performed by a 16-member choir, comprised primarily of Dutch amateurs and two Lithuanian singers.
Spreading Baltic culture abroad
Perhaps more so than other countries across the world, the history of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is one tied with song. The three Baltic nations have long turned to sing as a way to nurture and preserve their national and cultural identities amid foreign domination. And while this gave way to a 150-year-old choir movement at home, its significance and the overall cultural landscape of the Baltic nations remains relatively little-known to the outside world.
Under the leadership of Lithuanian choir conductor Sigita Žurauskaitė, the Baltic Project Choir aims to introduce the international community in the Netherlands to the long-standing tradition of Baltic choral music, fostering a deeper understanding about the history and the rich cultural heritage of the three Baltic nations.
“Music from these states contains so much information about where we come from, who we are and why we are the way we are. I think my role as a musician is to spread it out,” Sigita Žurauskaitė told the Lithuania Tribune.
Bringing past and present into poetic synthesis, Žurauskaitė placed traditional folksong arrangements alongside modern classical compositions from the likes of Vytautas Klova, Rihards Dubra and Arvo Pärt to showcase “as broad and rich a musical spectrum of colours as possible”.
Sticking to the roots
Almost all Lithuanian choral compositions were based on centuries-old traditional folksongs, including one original arrangement written by Sigita Žurauskaitė herself.
“I came to this decision very naturally. That’s where our music started and what kept our culture alive. We can’t forget our past. Especially now, when everything is becoming the same, the stronger we keep to our roots, the better. Yet, it’s important not to close the door to the future as well,” Žurauskaitė told the Lithuania Tribune.
With globalization changing the face of the culture around the globe, keeping this revolutionary musical tradition intact comes with its own difficulties. How do we strike the right balance between modernity and maintaining the authentic spirit of traditional culture?
As a composer, Sigita Žurauskaitė remains faithful to her creative philosophy of honouring cultural tradition while embracing the present.
“We have to accept that the world is changing. If we won’t bring these songs into modern life in a modern way, they will die. But even if I make something modern, I never forget where it comes from,” said Lithuanian choir conductor Žurauskaitė.
When songs defeated rifles
In addition to bringing Baltic choral tradition to international audiences, the Baltic Project Choir also wanted to pay tribute to the historical past of the three Baltic nations, celebrating the social power of music to unite, build communities and safeguard national identities in the face of foreign aggression and tyrannical rule.
In the history of the Baltic States, the idea of the song as a form of national resistance dates back to as far as the 19th century, when choirs would meet and perform in defiance of the Tsarist regime. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the grassroots movement now known as the Singing Revolution saw thousands of people gather in public places to proclaim their desire for independence through the collective act of singing. The three Baltic States quite literally sang their way out of the Soviet Union in 1991, causing its eventual collapse later that same year.
“Culture and music – these were our weapons. It’s what kept us alive, preserved our traditions, our history. And while everything was trying to divide us, the music kept us together,” Žurauskaitė told the Lithuania Tribune.
To make the experience as meaningful as possible, the historical significance of music and singing in the Baltic States was relayed to both the choir and the international members of the audience.
“I wanted the people to leave the concert with the feeling that they heard beautiful music, but with an understanding of how much weight it actually carries,” said Lithuanian choir conductor Žurauskaitė.
Fighting cultural misconceptions about the Baltics
In its entirety, the project also sought to clear common cultural misconceptions about the three Baltic States.
“People often think that we are very Russian because of our history, and while we do have some remaining Russian traditions, we are very different at the same time. I think it is our role to educate others about our history,” Žurauskaitė said to the Lithuania Tribune.
The pedagogical aspect of the Baltic Project Choir underpinned Žurauskaitė’s efforts to open up new channels of cultural communication and connection, not only for the vibrant community of Lithuanian ex-pats in Groningen but also for members of other cultures residing in the city.
“Personally, the reason I started this project is to stay connected to my roots. But the more I spread this music to others, the more they get interested and the more they feel connected, not only with their own countries but also with those of others. They become much more open and curious about where this music comes from. I think that’s also building a connection,” she said to the Lithuania Tribune.
The project’s humble beginnings
The humble beginnings of the Baltic Project Choir can be traced back to at least five years ago when Sigita Žurauskaitė first started her master studies at Prins Claus Conservatory in Groningen, the Netherlands. As part of her master research project, the Lithuanian choir conductor decided to focus on the international promotion of traditional Lithuanian music.
Stepping into previously uncharted territories, Žurauskaitė then founded the International Vocal Quartet, a project which encouraged her to write and perform vocal arrangements based on traditional Lithuanian folksongs, thus setting the conceptual foundation for the Baltic Project Choir years later.
Having spoken about Baltic vocal music with the biggest Dutch vocal magazine “Vocaal” in 2018, Žurauskaitė began to draw the attention of first sponsors and project enthusiasts, eventually setting the Baltic Project Choir into motion.
“It has been a great journey, not only for me as a professional but also as a musician personally,” Žurauskaitė told the Lithuania Tribune.
About the project
The project was sponsored by the Prins Claus Conservatory, architectural consultancy Bureau M. Haakmeester and a local bike shop Bikes in Groningen. Furthermore, the project would not have been possible without the support of Stichting Kunstraad Groningen, a local foundation in Groningen with the aim of fostering the cultural climate of the city.
Sigita Žurauskaitė belongs to a young generation of choir conductors and composers, promoting the rich and deep-rooted tradition of Lithuanian music across national borders. Having graduated with a degree in Music and Political Science from Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania and a Master’s in New Audiences and Innovative Practice from Prins Claus Conservatory in Groningen, Sigita Žurauskaitė has been conducting a number of different choirs in the Netherlands and working on a variety of other cultural projects, further launching her career abroad.