When Lithuania and the other Baltic states joined the EU in 2004, I was lucky enough to be invited over to the Vilnius Festival to write some articles about the place, its musical scene and its artistic history - and to do some roots-finding at the same time, as my ancestors were from there in the 18th century. Concerts were held in the beautiful Filharmonja, where Heifetz - who was born in Vilnius - made his debut as a child; and in there I heard an astonishing performance of the Tchaikovsky 'Pathétique' Symphony, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an absolute glory: gut-wrenching stuff, with old-school Russian-style strings and distinctive vinegary trumpets, sizzling narrative, epic-scale tragedy: music as a matter of life and death.
Vilnius has a proud and distinguished musical life; it's had its problems over the decades, of course, but the influences run deep and come from powerful origins. That's Mirga's background. (She must have been about 18 when I went there, of course...)
It seems worth revisiting those thoughts, so here's the briefish blogpost about it; and below I am pasting the article I wrote then for The Strad, 2004. (It may be missing some accents and suchlike, I'm afraid.) Pics are mine, from then.
|The Vilnius Filharmonja|
LITHUANIA by Jessica Duchen - from THE STRAD, 2004
Local legend has identified, on a hillside in the Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, an unmarked site of pilgrimage for violinists. Surrounded by the tumbledown remains of what was long ago the Vilna Ghetto, ripe for redevelopment amid the turmoil of change underway all around, stands the birthplace of Jascha Heifetz – its yellowish brick and the wooden stables in its back yard probably unchanged since the day Vilna’s greatest prodigy made his debut at the Filharmonja concert hall, aged seven.
|Apparently this is Jascha Heifetz's birthplace|
Part of the Baltic territory that over the centuries has been carved up between surrounding powers in a variety of ways, Lithuania is home to a proud and impressive musical tradition, bearing important influences from both its heftier neighbours, Russia and Poland. Cesar Cui (1835-1918), one of Russia’s Mighty Handful, was born in Vilnius; among his teachers was the Polish-born Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872), who was organist at St John’s Church in Vilnius and set to music poems by Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish poet said to have inspired Chopin’s Ballades, whose Vilnius home is now marked by a stone plaque.
Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), after whom the country’s elite arts high school is named, was both a composer and a painter who pioneered abstract art in Lithuania; speaking of paintings, Marc Chagall was born in nearby Vitebsk and his canvases evoke, in fantastical images of floating violins and traditional Jewish fiddlers ‘on the roof’, the musical aspect of the once vast, artistically fertile Jewish community of this region. Vilnius was known in the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’. All that was destroyed (with local help) during the Nazi invasion, and the traces of it flattened and suppressed under the subsequent Soviet regime.
|Interior of the Filharmonja|
But today Lithuania’s musical life is flourishing. Its ensembles include two symphony orchestras, the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre with its own orchestra in Vilnius and the State Music Theatre in Kaunas, two chamber orchestras in Vilnius and another in Kaunas, and a lively choral and chamber music scene. Add to that the ambitious Vilnius Festival, which has run every June for ten years, several annual festivals of contemporary music and three high-level musical competitions, including a violin competition named after Heifetz, and the importance of music becomes clear as daylight. Folk music, particularly song and dance, is ever popular (the local stringed instrument is the ‘kanklés’), and international jazz festivals bring visitors flocking to Vilnius and Kaunas each year; also taking place is a gradual resurgence of interest in Klezmer and the Jewish folk music of the Vilna Ghetto.
Among today’s most celebrated Lithuanian-born soloists are violinist Julian Rachlin and cellist David Geringas – the latter has particularly championed the music of Anatolijus Senderovas, once a childhood friend, now a leading Lithuanian composer, who has written a concerto and a number of solo and chamber works for him. Lithuania has a strong quartet-playing tradition; and although the Lithuanian String Quartet, for many years the country’s leading chamber ensemble, has now disbanded, others are doing well, notably the MK Ciurlionis Quartet and the Chordos Quartet which places considerable emphasis on contemporary music.
|The Gates of Dawn|
This is currently in abundant supply. The director of the Vilnius Festival, Gintautas Kevisas, also director of the Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre, says that he wants composers ‘to feel that they are a very significant part of the community’; he is eager to encourage this with an annual Festival commission. The 2004 festival’s world premiere was the Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas, who won the prestigious National Prize in 2003 for his Violin Concerto, Jeux. His Duo Concertante is dedicated to the memory of an extraordinary figure in Lithuanian history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas (then the capital) in 1940, who saved 6,000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis by issuing them with transit visas although his government had forbidden him to do so. In tribute, much of the Duo Concertante is modelled on Japanese music. Its premiere, with violinist Philippe Graffin and violist Nobuko Imai as soloists, drew an enthusiastic response; Imai has now arranged its Japanese premiere for the Tokyo Viola Space Festival in May 2005.
This year, the Vilnius Festival commission is a new ballet score from Senderovas. Senderovas, Barkauskas and numerous other Lithuanian composers have been enjoying increasingly international profiles since Lithuania declared independence from Russia in 1991. As Barkauskas says, preparing for a previously unthinkable visit to Japan, ‘It’s like springtime!’
Lithuania is at an ‘interesting’ point in its history, caught in a tug-of-war between Communist legacy and capitalist aspiration. Experiences in some musical organisations are symptomatic of this ideological transition: most notably, last year the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra ejected its 77-year-old conductor, Saulis Sondeckis, who had been at its helm for 44 years, after a heated, vociferous and very public power struggle. During the Communist years, such appointments were jobs for life. This – as every musician I met in Vilnius agreed – has to change.
Nevertheless, most music in Lithuania is still state-run. The National Philharmonic Society, the umbrella organisation under which musical organisations were centralised under the Soviet regime, is still in place and is generally regarded as a positive way to protect musical life, preferable to exposing every organisation individually to the uncertainty of market forces. Young talent is still nurtured by a network of state music schools across the country, and also by the sizeable Ciurlionis School, which admits the most talented pupils in music, ballet and fine art. When I visited Vilnius, I found that most of the musicians and arts administrators I met had been educated there.
Unsurprisingly, the dominant force in Lithuania’s string teaching is the Russian school. At the 2004 Vilnius Festival, hearing the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the young Lithuanian conductor Robertas Servenikas leading the specially-formed Vilnius Festival Orchestra through Mozart, Stamitz and Barkauskas, it was easy to imagine oneself sliding back in time by 30 years. The LNSO’s style is intense and creamy, reminiscent of recordings by the finest USSR orchestras, while the Festival Orchestra’s approach was lively, spirited and clear, but without a trace of influence from the sinewy sounds, inspired by period instrument performance, that now dominate many European chamber orchestras.
|The Heifetz Hall is in the Jewish Community Museum|
The LNSO’s concertmaster, Almina Statkuviene, explains the benefits of her colleagues’ unity of style: ‘Because we have all trained in the same system – we are almost all graduates of the Lithuanian Music Academy – we play together very naturally, with the same technique. Our principal conductor, Juozas Domarkas, has been with the orchestra since 1964, but we have none of the tensions that some other orchestras are currently experiencing! He studied in St Petersburg with Ilya Musin and Mravinsky and has brought some excellent traditions with him.’
Head of strings at the Lithuanian Academy of Music is violist Petras Radzevicius: he is also principal viola of the LCO and has been a crucial lynchpin in establishing the Jascha Heifetz Violin Competition. He has taught at the LMA since 1963 and served as head of department since 1987. Currently, he says, the string department holds 12 professors and around 80 students.
|On Gediminas, looking towards the cathedral|
‘After the war, in the early days of the Soviet occupation, some young musicians from Moscow arrived in Vilnius,’ he explains, ‘and from that time onwards the Russian school of playing, in those days considered rather progressive, established itself here. All the professors in the string department today are students of those original Russian teachers, and many of them also went to Moscow for postgraduate studies with pupils of David Oistrakh.’ A good handful of foreign students come to the Academy each year, he adds: ‘Lithuania is known as a good place to study the Russian style.’
Nevertheless, some of Lithuania’s younger musicians, especially those who have studied abroad, are impatient with the pace of change. Mindaugas Backus, principal cello of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra and cellist of the Chordos Quartet, came to Britain to spend two years at the Royal Northern College of Music; the contrast, he says, proved revealing. He feels that musical attitudes in Lithuania need to be updated to take in stylistic developments in the wider musical world as well as more positive responses to personal enterprise. ‘The mentality in Lithuania remains to a large extent very Eastern European and there is a lack of choice,’ he explains. ‘Part of the problem is that so many young people leave the country; I think they should come back and help to carry things forward to new generations here!
‘Things are improving gradually,’ he adds. ‘People are working hard and the atmosphere is hopeful. EU membership makes it easier for us to travel and to invite people from abroad to give masterclasses and perform, although resources are still scarce. And when you go overseas, it’s very nice to stand in the EU Passports queue at immigration!’
Lithuania, poised on its cusp between old and new, looks set to become a fertile ground for musical development in the 21st century. It has long enjoyed that potential. And it may at last be on the road to fulfilment and international recognition. JD