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

Monday, August 29, 2016

Whence Mirga?

Listening on the radio to the splendid Proms debut of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with her CBSO the other night, I couldn't help a smile or ten. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman: with a performance like that, wonderfully sculpted, full of conviction, detail and blazing emotion, it couldn't be clearer that the orchestra has snapped her up because she is a fantastic conductor, not because she is female in an era when (at last) equality is being demanded. UK listeners can hear the concert on the iPlayer here. It's also clear that quite a few people haven't much idea of where Lithuania is, or why it should produce such an excellent musician.

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

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


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.