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Talivaldis Kenins: Profilic composer exiled from Latvia in the Second World War who found a home in Canada

Talivaldis Kenins was one of an entire generation of Baltic composers whose promising careers were nipped in the bud when their countries were crushed between the imperialist ambitions of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Kenins found exile in North America, becoming a valued feature of Canadian musical life. He was one of the few to live long enough to see freedom restored to his home country, and to return to enjoy the acclaim of his compatriots.

Kenins came from a cultured background: his father was a politician (Minister of Education and Justice in the Latvian republic between the two world wars), a lawyer, diplomat and educator, with a reputation also as a poet and translator, who was to be deported by the Soviets; his mother was a journalist and writer. Although young "Tali" began to learn the piano at five and was composing by eight, he was none the less intended for a career in the Latvian diplomatic service and took a first degree in general arts at the Lycée Champollion in Grenoble, becoming a Bachelier ès lettres in 1939.

He then returned home, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, to begin a course in composition at the Latvian Conservatory in Riga, where he studied piano with Arvids Žilinskis, counterpoint with Jazeps Vitols, and harmony, form and orchestration with Adolfs Abele.

The Baltic republics had their first experience of Soviet terror after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 handed them over to Stalin. When in 1944 the Russians invaded again, driving out the occupying Germans, the locals knew what they were in for and those who could left. Kenins fled, making his way with extraordinary difficulty through Germany to France, and in 1945 he enrolled at the Conservatoire National de Musique in Paris, where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen.

The impoverished refugee's keyboard skills now came to his aid, and he fed himself by playing the piano in theatres and dance bands and accompanying singers. He managed to stick to his academic guns, though, and graduated in 1950 with a Grand Prix, one of a number of student prizes he now had to his name. His music was beginning to attract international attention: that same year the Unesco International Music Council awarded him a scholarship which allowed him a year's post-graduate work, and his Septet of 1949 was performed at that hotbed of modernism, the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für neue Musik, conducted by no less a figure than Hermann Scherchen.

In exile, Kenins never forgot his native land and, after marrying his fellow Latvian Valda Dreimane, in 1951 an appointment as organist and music director at St Andrew's Latvian Lutheran Church in Toronto allowed him to remain in contact with Latvian culture. The choir he founded there, and conducted until 1958, became one of the most prominent church choirs in North America.

In 1952 Kenins joined the staff of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto as a teacher of composition and counterpoint; he was a full professor from 1973 until his retirement in 1984. Among his students are some of the best-known names in contemporary Canadian music: the composers Tomas Dusatko, Bruce Mather and Imant Raminsh, the academic Walter Kemp and the pianist Arthur Ozolins.

Kenins was active off-campus, too, in the Canadian League of Composers, of which he was president in 1973-74, the Latvian Concert Association of Toronto, which he founded in 1959, in Latvian song festivals, as a writer in exile publications, and as a frequent lecturer at Canadian and international conferences and symposia.

And, of course, he composed, generously. He produced eight symphonies between 1959 and 1986 but balked at the idea of the jinxed No 9 that had put an end to the symphonic careers of Beethoven, Mahler and many other composers, and so he wrote a Nonet instead (he called it "l'ultima sinfonia" but denied that the number of instruments was an allusion to a ninth symphony); there's also a sinfonietta from 1976. He wrote no fewer than 12 concertos, including works for piano (not least the Fantaisies concertantes of 1971; the early Piano Concerto of 1946 was never orchestrated), violin (1973-74) and viola (1998).

But this superficial categorisation gives an imprecise idea of Kenins' creative concerns: three of the concertos feature two soloists – violin and cello with string orchestra (1964), violin and piano (1987), flute and guitar (1985) – and the Second Symphony of 1967 is a Sinfonia concertante for flute, oboe, clarinet and orchestra and the Fourth of 1972 a concertante for orchestra with prominent percussion. It was Kenins' enjoyment of lean, wiry counterpoint, of the interplay of melodic lines and instrumental colour – often driven forward by powerful ostinato rhythms – that blurred the borders between genres. His chamber music, similarly, can have a symphonic drive and his orchestral textures a chamber-musical clarity.

His contrapuntal mastery led naturally to a fondness for fugue, particularly in his early works, which lessened somewhat when in the 1970s he began experimenting with some of the tools of modernism, allowing a higher degree of dissonance into his music, even (in the Fourth Symphony of 1972) an element of indeterminacy. But the instincts of his craftsmanship eventually reasserted themselves as tonality and polyphony reclaimed their sovereignty, with the Sixth Symphony, the Sinfonia ad fugam (1978), accommodating both aleatoric and traditional elements and the Seventh Symphony (1980) offering a technical tour de force in its integration of passacaglia and fugue.

Kenins often used Latvian material or stimuli in his music, particularly in his choral works, as in the Prayer for Latvia (1951) for soprano, baritone, male-voice chorus and orchestra, To a Soldier from Kurland (1953) for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra and the Cantata Baltica (1974) for mezzo, mixed choir, two trumpets, timpani and organ. He also produced choral treatments of Latvian folksongs.

Latvia itself rediscovered Kenins, too. In 1989, as the Soviet Union lessened its grip, he made the first of three return visits to his homeland and was awarded an honorary professorship of the Riga Conservatory. Latvian television presented a documentary on him in 1990. And concerts of his music in 1991, the year Latvia regained its independence, and in 1994 drew him back again, when his visit was marked by the publication of the only book about him, Ingrida Zemzare's Starp divam pasaulem ("Between Two Worlds").

The American musicologist Paul Rapoport, who wrote more in English about Kenins' music that anyone else, recalled "a convivial and warm-hearted friend who was widely read and had both strong opinions and a lively sense of humour. He was one of the best and most prolific Canadian composers of the 20th century. His music, which often combines chamber and concertante principles to a high level, is seriously under-represented in concerts and recordings".

Martin Anderson

Talivaldis Kenins, composer and teacher: born Liepaja, Latvia 22 April 1919; married 1950 Valda Dreimane (two sons); died Toronto, Ont ario 20 January 2008.