Showing posts with label Lithuania. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lithuania. Show all posts

Friday, June 24, 2005

Return to the old country


Oldest church
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's a little like meeting people: it can take two encounters to make the penny drop, a double dose to take in the full measure of somebody special. So it was with Vilnius.

Above, the oldest church in Vilnius, or so it says inside. You can see from this picture the kind of loving care that has been lavished on its restoration. There are around 130 churches in Vilnius and they are all architectural gems (though I can do without the Russian orthodox one that contains a glass casket of three pickled 14th-century saints in white stockings!).

Only one synagogue is left. And it's closed. It appears that the old divide between the mystics and the intellectuals has resurfaced in a rather unexpected way. All very complicated... I hear, however, that there is a long-term project to restore the old Jewish sites of the city and a very long-term hope that perhaps one day the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, could be reconstructed. At the moment there is an open basketball court where it once stood.

I'm very, very glad that I went back to Vilnius to re-order my impressions after the vaguely surreal experiences I had there during my first visit last year (see archive for June 04). It was an incredible trip, full of extraordinary music and wonderful people. I met most of my friends from last year and made some new ones too. Tom came with me and was bowled over by the whole experience; we both feel that this place, in one way or another, gets under one's skin. You can't escape the horrors of the past, however much you try to look forward rather than back; but maybe this is why the place has such a sense of soul.

It was once a melting pot; and perhaps it will be again, since during two days we encountered Indian classical music (the incredible Wahajat Khan in collaboration with the Ciurlionis Quartet), a travelling Norwegian choir, a free concert of Lithuanian premieres and Mischa Maisky performing Bruch's Kol Nidrei looking extraordinarily like the Vilna Gaon himself. Whatever the programme notes had managed to dredge up about the lack of Jewishness in this piece of music, I can think of little that would be more moving than listening to it being performed in "Vilne". Several members of the audience around us were in tears too.

The language seems impenetrable at first - it's like nothing you've heard anywhere before (unless you happen to know Latvian). I've managed to remember Labas (hello), Aciu (thank you - sounds like you're sneezing) and I svekata (cheers - memorable not only through quantity of use but because it sounds like "is the cat here?"). As for the food, I'm still not keen on the potato pancakes, but can heartily recommend my favourite soup EVER: Saltibarsciai. Essentially it's cold borscht with hot potatoes. Here's a recipe, which I'll be trying at home shortly...

Vilnius is, in one word, extraordinary. Don't ask how or why, but something tells me that this won't be my last visit.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Reading?!?

Nice feedback today from my friend Beate in Vilnius. She's been showing off the piece I wrote for The Strad (February issue) about musical life in Lithuania, one of the articles I was able to do as a result of my visit to the Vilnius Festival last June, and it seems to be going over well with many of the individuals and institutions involved.

This is a great relief, because trying to encapsulate an entire culture, a whole history and its associated personalities and triumphs and tragedies after only 5 days in the place is no easy task - and squeezing even 5 days' worth of experiences into three pages is just as problematic (especially experiences like that!). I can't help remembering that the whole of James Joyce's Ulysses takes place in one day.

It's weird, but after 15 years in music journalism, I still find it terrifying to think that anyone actually READS what I've written. Writing these days is a remarkably odd process (perhaps it always was...). You sit in your study, type away at the computer, brush and hone and chop and change and try reading things aloud and eventually you get the word length about right; then you press a button and off it goes...and you forget about it until, a few weeks or months later, there it is in the programme/newspaper/magazine and you can't even remember what you wrote or how you wrote it. I did some programme notes for an LPO concert last week and it was pretty alarming to see people in the audience sitting expectantly with the relevant page open on their knees. The most frightened I've ever been on such an occasion was once when I'd written the notes for a song recital at the Wigmore Hall and on the night I spotted Vikram Seth, one of my favourite writers, sitting across the aisle, leafing through...

Blogging, by contrast, is in real time. Plus, you can go back and change things if you need to. And you don't have to watch while people go 'tut tut tut' and shake their heads sadly over your remarks. Much more friendly.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Vibrato in Vilnius

Back from Vilnius, reeling a bit. Four incredibly intense days of walking, looking, listening, talking, tasting, paying tribute... I'll be writing about it 'properly', but here are some initial impressions.

I went on the invitation of the Vilnius Festival, thanks (of course) to Philippe Graffin who, with Nobuko Imai, was playing the new Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas. There is a great deal of interest in the place at the moment thanks to Lithuania's accession to the EU, so it seemed a marvellous 'diem' to 'carpe'.

Vilnius is a city divided both physically and mentally. The old town, paradoxically, seems newest. It has been lovingly renovated with WHF grants and is now full of souvenir shops, little restaurants and such like, including my hotel, the Stikliai, which was utterly gorgeous (though we had a day of heavy rain and my ceiling developed 3 leaks!). In a few years' time - not many - there is going to be a tourist boom here. Beyond the old city, however, the town still seems partly immured in 1980s Russia.

The most moving event, among many, was the celebration after the Duo Concertante concert on Sunday evening. 'Vytas' Barkauskas and his wife, Svetlana, invited a number of us back to their flat, where they took enormous pride in gathering and entertaining their friends, far more than most British people generally do. Svetlana prepared masses of food, with sushi in Nobuko's honour and Baron Philippe de Rothschild wine in Philippe's, not to mention an incredible home-made poppyseed cake with DUO written on it in large letters - a recipe, apparently, of 'Vytas's grandmother's. There were toasts, celebrations and conversations in an extraordinary mix of languages (Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian, Japanese, you name it) until almost 2am. I experienced this kind of warmth and hospitality in Kiev ten years ago. It's a special approach to life: soulful, heartfelt and deeply touching. Barkauskas and I managed to communicate in French, more or less; but when we said goodbye on the last day and I apologised for my lousy vocabulary, he declared that he understands everything with his eyes, head and heart.

On Monday, however, I went to the Jewish Museum. Emerged deeply upset. We've all seen pictures and documents of the Holocaust, but being in a place where it happened - a place very different from Berlin, where memorials and rebuilding have transformed the city - made it feel desperately close. The hotel's immediate vicinity used to be the ghetto. I found the statue of my ancestor the Gaon 20 yards up the road - apparently in the middle of nowhere, but a map in the museum revealed that this open area of ill-kempt grass and Soviet-era offices was where the Great Synagogue once stood. It seated more than 3000 people and was the heart of Jewish life in the town that for so long was a renowned centre of culture, learning and art. The Jerusalem of the North. It was burned down by the Nazis and its ruins were then flattened by the Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot in the woods at nearby Ponar.

The museum evidently runs on a shoestring. You can visit Ponar, but I didn't want to. The Gaon, topical though his memorial may be, is tricky to find. My impression of modern-day Lithuanians is that they don't know much about any of this, aren't interested and don't really see why they should be. After all, goes the argument, they were victims too (they were, of course). Even the Mr Big of the music world there - someone who has initiated a couple of festivals of Jewish music and art - said that to them, that world is something historical. Which, I guess, means something that isn't alive any longer. I met and interviewed Vilnius's one Jewish composer, Anatolijus Senderovas, who is writing a ballet score for next year's festival and is a most delightful man. By that time I felt very glad to see him.

They're missing a trick - for one thing, they could make more of their most famous musical son, one Jascha Heifetz. The stage of the Filharmonja, where Philippe and Nobuko played their new piece, was where little Jascha aged about seven made his debut. The morning before we left, several of us went to find Heifetz's birthplace, which Philippe had tracked down. No marking; no celebration. Behind the house, some ancient stables. Heifetz was not perceived as Lithuanian. Therefore, little credit is given to him - other than by crazy journalists, violinists and record producers on bizarre pilgrimmages to his back yard.

Vilnius is full of churches, packed to the rafters on Sunday morning. There is one synagogue - currently closed, apparently because of infighting in the Jewish community.

Food...Dumplings R Us. Potato pancakes R Us too...effectively latkes. Delicious, but a little goes a long way and sits heavy on the stomach. My favourite local food: cold borscht with hot potatoes. My favourite meal experienced in Vilnius: of all things, a Japanese feast on Saturday night with the Barkauskases, Philippe, Nobuko & Simon Foster. A totally international group of six people, only two of whom shared a first language (Svetlana's is Ukranian), eating Japanese food in Lithuania!

The whole trip was an experience that I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. It was part fairy tale, part nightmare, part glorious, part just all too much... More about it will emerge in due course as I start writing my articles.