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Janis Kalnins: Biography

Janis Kalnins
1904 - 2000
Region: Atlantic

Janis Kalnins

Janis Kalnins was born of Latvian parents in Pernu, Estonia on November 3, 1904. His father Alfred was both a gifted composer and one of the truly great organists of Czarist Russia. Janis initially learned piano and organ from his father, and he was considered a child prodigy on both instruments.

From 1922 to 1924 Janis studied conducting and composition at the Latvian State Conservatory in Riga under Joseph Vitols, a former pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. During these years, he also studied composition, piano, and voice in France, Germany and Italy. After graduating from the Conservatory, Janis studied conducting both with Erick Kleiber in Salzburg, and with Harmann Abenroth and Leo Blech in Berlin.

From 1923 to 1933, Kalnins served as the conductor and musical director of the Latvian National Theatre in Riga. In 1933 he was appointed conductor of the Latvian National Opera in Riga (a position that had formerly been held by Richard Wagner and by Bruno Walter). He remained with the Opera for 11 years, but spent 1944-1947 in camps for Displaced Persons inside Germany.

Kalnins immigrated to Canada in 1948, working initially as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul's United Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In 1951 Kalnins took up two new appointments. The first was as Professor of Music at Fredericton’s Teachers' College. By the time he retired from that position 20 years later, Professor Kalnins had taught more than 700 students. The second appointment was as conductor of the Fredericton Civic Orchestra. In 1959 he joined the Saint John Symphony Orchestra and was an important part in the evolution of this group into the New Brunswick Symphony Orchestra in 1961. At that time Kalnins was appointed Principal Conductor.

Before 1948, Kalnins served as a guest conductor for many operatic and symphony orchestras in Sweden, Germany, and Poland. After 1948, he performed the same service throughout the US and Canada (e.g., Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, Windsor, and London).

Kalnins received a variety of awards throughout his career. In 1937 he was inducted into the Gustav Vasa Order by the King of Sweden. In 1938 he was inducted into the Three Star Order by the State of Latvia. In 1966 he was awarded the First Prize in Music by the Latvian National Federation. In 1981 he received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Mount Allison University, as well as the Bourque-Manney Award for the Performing Arts. In 1984 the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick presented him with the New Brunswick Award for Excellence in the Arts.

On his 80th birthday, Dr. Kalnins’ contribution to the development of music in Canada was honored through a gala concert that was organized by Toronto's Latvian community. Another concert in his honor took place in Chicago one week later, and a third tribute concert took place in New York the following month. As part of the year's celebrations, President Ronald Reagan sent Dr. Kalnins a congratulatory letter on October 19, 1984. On his next birthday, Dr. Kalnins was honored with a tribute concert in his home city of Fredericton. The program consisted entirely of Kalnins' own compositions, which were performed by renowned artists. The evening's speakers included the province’s Premier, Richard Hatfield. CBC Radio broadcast this concert twice in January 1986. Later that year, proceeds from the 1985 Toronto concert were used to create an annual Dr. Janis Kalnins Award at Mount Allison University.

Dr. Kalnins died on November 30, 2000 in Fredericton N.B. The Dr. Janis Kalnins Award at Mt. Allison Univeristy was established to celebrate his legacy.

April 2006 - biography compiled by Mark Leonard

For any further information regarding Janis Kalnins please contact kalfons@sympatico.ca.

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