Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Whither Lithuanian music education?

Here comes a very serious topic.

While at home in Vilnius my running route took me across Lukiskiu square facing the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA). Every time I looked at this imposing building, with the former KGB building (some sort of court nowadays and the KGB archives) next to it, my heart sank.

Why? The KGB building was fully renovated a few years ago, new roof, nicely painted, that sort of thing. The music academy has had some new windows. What makes it worse is that the Tbilisi conservatoire is totally spic and absolutely span, very recently renovated, with a beautiful concert hall with a huge organ, and everything just perfect. Georgia is not richer than Lithuania, in fact, according to the CIA world factbook (ok, I know facts and it can be a bit disjunct, but maybe they are consistently disjunct), Lithuania's GDP in PPP is four times as high as that of Georgia (though the prices of food in supermarkets seem to be much the same).

In addition to the main building, the LMTA has what looks like a semi-derelict building across the road (both in prime position in Vilnius), and a much more clapped-out building quite some distance away, up the road from the Cathedral. Plus a bit of a modern building which was done up about 5 or 6 years ago and where the walls are so thin that if you are playing you can be accompanied from the room above or next-door.

That's the buildings, old, clapped-out or cheap and nasty. Then there are the teachers. Most of them have a brilliant history of training in Moscow (in the Soviet days) or Berlin or other places. Some trained with famous people, like Rostropovich (though the last one of that group left a few years ago). There are quite a few wonderful, and really enthusiastic and committed teachers. The problem is...almost all of them are over 60; some have not seen 60 for a decade or more. It's a pity we cannot conserve, or can, their teaching approaches.

Salaries at the academy are, frankly, hardly worth the paper they are written on. How people survive on this, I would not like to consider. The odd young teacher here or there gets paid a pittance, and they have to work hard to continue their concertising (though they should, anyway).

Students? The best young students now go straight to Western Europe, like they went to Moscow fifty years ago. Only those who insist on remaining in Vilnius, or who cannot get to European universities for one reason or another, study here now, though some students also come over for an Erasmus term or year - but we do have a bit of a language barrier.

Once the best young people have gone abroad, they tend to stay abroad, though the odd one or three comes back - usually due to family ties. Anyone who wins an international prize would probably have a higher standard of living outside Lithuania. And is the academy still bound by national salary scales that it cannot pay good young, and even foreign, professors? A few professors who have come to Vilnius on exchange schemes return time and time again, mostly unpaid, just for the love of it. That's not right - Lithuania is no longer a charity case.

So what has the academy to offer? Clapped-out buildings, older (though very charming, and some very good, teachers), I would not like to think about the student hostels....At least, I suppose, the teachers are usually on site, and not like many international stars, pop in once a month or so. And Vilnius is a small place so you quickly get to know everyone if you are a foreign student.

How can it survive? I don't understand why the academy does not make use of those billions of Euros flowing into Lithuania from European funds. The specialist music school makes use of it (it's undergoing a huge renovation), the conservatoire I am sure has used them, other universities and public buildings are using the funds. Why not the academy?

Another obvious option would be to get rid of some of the real estate and consolidate holdings. Problem may be that the properties are owned by the state, as a kind of anonymous blob, rather than by the academy, so getting rid of stuff would not do the academy much good.

One wonders about specialising. The string players are generally still very good, and maybe the academy should team up with the other Baltic academies, with one concentrating on strings, another on winds, a third on conducting etc. (Lithuania has not produced a star conductor for some time, if ever. Though the Latvian Maris Janssons trained in St Petersburg, as did Neeme Järvi; and his many conducting children probably grew up in the US. So not sure if we could call the other Baltic States a conductor's cradle either - may need to look to Helsinki for that).

Brass teaching we should just close; it's dreadful; woodwinds have their moments, yes, indeed, that Juozas Rimas produces some very nice oboists. About the ballet and theatre I don't know, though clearly we need actors and dancers - where else could you start an acting career in Lithuanian? And the Opera and Ballet Theatre is in constant need of dancers, taking them in all sizes - not everywhere does that. Also our singers are quite good; there's Urmana Urmanaviciute, Liora Grodnikaite, Edgaras Montvidas, all of whom have international careers, though this class of singers usually goes on to other schools once they finish their BAs in Vilnius. Maybe Vilnius should just do BAs and provide fodder for other universities? But then who would be the future homegrown teachers? Those doing their post grad work abroad might not come back.

Getting good professors from abroad to come and give classes once a month? Probably could not afford that, unless someone sponsored that. (Many foreign professors do visit through the Erasmus Scheme, but not consistently month after month).

Find ways of raising funds? 'Our students don't have money' - I was once told. Some do, and they might also lobby their friends for funds. The academy is approaching an anniversary in April - that would have been a wonderful opportunity for a major fundraising effort. Often the investment in a fundraiser's salary pays itself back many times; ask UNICEF in Germany.

Unfortunately mammon and music need to go together; it's the way the business works - and it is a business. Really the academy needs some serious advice on how to improve its condition, its quality and develop a future. It cannot slide on as it is.

(I can now forg
et ever doing a post grad there).