Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bells ...and Belles

Even at the ripe old age of 82 and a bit, the legendary Russian ballerina assoluta Maya Pliseckaya still has legs up to her armpits, a ramrod straight back and a posture people half her age would envy her for. I bet she still works out at the barre every day.

No, she did not dance last night, but attended, with her husband, Rodion Shchedrin, 75 recently, the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre's performance of his ballet 'Anna Karenina'. Maybe the ballet was written for her? Though she would have been 46 at the time - but she's tough. And of course the audience love her. If her husband had come on stage without her they might have been disappointed. So she came on first, to a collective 'Aaaaaah'. It was great!

But this package does not come with every performance. The production in Vilnius is one from the Royal Ballet, Copenhagen, and everything about it is wonderful. A mixture of classical and (restrained) modern dance, a simple set on which different backgrounds are projected, a huge train moved by remote control....

Anna Karenina was danced by our Egle Spokaite (our prima ballerina), perhaps in appreciation of the evening's guests. I was wondering if Egle was getting a tiny bit stiff? Her spine did not seem as plastic and malleable as it used to be (there was a moment in 'Zorba the Greek' where she withdrew ever so slightly from the touch of her lover - breath-taking stuff), but there were many wonderful moments, like when she is struggling with her feelings for her young lover, and spikily tries to withdraw from his advances. Egle's 'speciality' seems to be women who descend into madness (she dances several ballets in this role, eg 'Red Giselle', 'Desdemona'), and this always happens at the moment that her hair becomes undone.

Her Alexey, to whom she was drawn, but she was also drawn to her child, was the delightful Nerijus Juska, dancing beautifully as always. Could he have shown more agony? I'm not sure.

Miki Hamanaka, who now dances many of the main roles, had a tiny part. I thought she, too, was a bit all elbows and angles last night.

The star of the show, I thought, was Vytautas Kudzma, who danced the role of her elderly, long-suffering husband. He's not actually an active dancer any more, but a dance trainer in the opera house. In any case, the role does not require much dancing. But the moment when he discovered his wife's affection for young Alexey was so full of pain, and agony...In other places, where he had to dance in parallel to young Nerijus Juska, you did feel a little challenge or two, but then, an elderly husband would feel a challenge or two with a young rival on the scene. So all perfectly in order.

The conductor - I don't think I have seen him before, but it seems I have written about him before here, was Valerij Ovsianikov from Russia. Young guy, seemed to be perfectly in charge, and everything worked as it should be.

Oh yes, the bells. Seems to be something about Russian programmatic music, that sooner or later you hear that peal of those thin, high church bells. And nearly always someone is dead or getting buried at that moment. If it's got a bell, it's Russian?


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Two hours on a hard church pew

...was the price we paid for Musica Humana's action packed programme tonight in Vilnius - and they had cut two pieces....At least one other they could easily have cut, and another one did not really fit into the (all Mozart) programming.

Mozart's sonata for flute and keyboard, KV 13, presumably was written when he was about 6, knowing his output. I couldn't write this, of course, not without much trying, but really, let the child be a child and not remind us all of his early attempts. I am sure he would have buried it, as it should have been. Simplistic, too low on the flute, and with a dreadful last movement, which showed Mozart's early attempts at those little chromatic runs, but here they were like someone running with galumphing big boots. Not really helped by Algirdas Vizgirdas' booming tone (I do believe it's a bit breathy) that came out of his (new?) golden flute.

This was followed by the symphony KV128, two movements of the quartet for oboe and strings (why was the oboist described as a soloist), two arias from rare Mozart operas (Mitridate and Il re pastore), the dissonance string quartet (at half an hour far too long) and the Senerata Notturna KV 239.

The Musica Humana changes its composition rather often, though there is a core of about 5 people who always attend. It was interesting to note that those who came from symphony orchestras tended to use lush Tchaikovsky bowing whereas those who had a history of chamber orchestras were much better at the Mozartian bowing. Since the leader of the band is a flautist, they won't get much help in the decision-making on bowing. Also the chamber players were a bit more secure on their intonation. As for the lone cellist of the band, Raimundas Jasiukaitis, a member of the core team, he is always totally reliable and spot on in anything he does.

There was a lovely moment in the second movement of the symphony (I think...) which was not repeated when it came round again.... Robertas Beinaris' exquisite playing of the oboe part in the oboe-quartet was not always followed by the violinist repeating it, who rather rushed at it - bit of a shame. The others just kept their head down.

Raminta Vaicekauskaite, dressed like a golden bee, and knowing well why she curtsied and did not bow, wonderfully sang the two arias; she has a great, powerful voice - sitting in the front row my ears are now very clean! Here the first fiddles hit a rough patch now and again.

The string quartet was ok, but not string quartettish enough; the parts did not sing out their solos when they came, but just kept playing, as if they were in an orchestra - apart from the cello who did great. And far too long.

The Serenada Notturna was ok, with different parts of the band on the opposite side of the stage (because that's how it is). The last movement was weird - usually the much repeated theme starts with an appoggiatura, 'teedle-deedle', but here they started with 'tweek-tweek' - an accaciatura. It was the Kalmus edition they used, which explains a lot, but are they trying to tell me they haven't heard it before? That would be shocking.

I think the band has a new leader, and experience needs to be built. Though I also wonder about micro-management; the conductor likes to conduct, even when only 4 people were playing, and he conducts every note - imagine fast 16th-notes; maybe some of the players don't have the confidence to sing out - yet?


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Prententious Prancing in Slow Motion

I was wondering if I had made a mistake buying a ticket for 'Die Walkuere' at Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre instead of going to the viola concerto concert at the Filharmonija. I had.

It was deadly! So deadly, I left after the first act. The instrumental music was nice, and the orchestra played nicely (though the horns portended what was to come - and it was not good); the singing might have been the right notes, but it was totally un-understandable (they sung in German, I speak German, but it would have been really hard work trying to understand them, especially since there are no arias which repeat words). I hear that the singer Benno Schollum has produced a book called 'German for singers' - I could think of a ready market for this....

The acting was execrable - because the action moves slowly, there's not a great deal to do for the singers, so they were busy filling time. Frankly, I had not realised until I read the plot afterwards, that the woman in the first act was the sister of Siegmund - it looked to me like she was desperate to bed him, especially doing all sorts of suggestive stuff with that big, long sword he was holding. ...And what was that about the oversize sofa, the stuffed lion on it, and the hand running along the back of the sofa? And why did she put the milk out for the cat? Filling time, that's all it was. Maybe in Wagner's day people were happy watching singers just standing around singing.....

It was quite nice, though, to rest your eyes to the music - though the seats are not that much made for sleeping.

Don't ask me about the rest of the opera, though.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Trite, trivial and oh so sycophantic

....apart from quite amusing, very short and quite expensive (11 quid). That's Alan Bennett's 'The Uncommon Reader'. I'm now a bit embarrassed to have used it as a Christmas present for a rather high-brow reader.

Alan Bennett is of course a National Treasure, who has written wonderful plays for TV, with his 'Talking Heads' and that play about Anthony Blunt and the Queen. I gather that recently he may have been suffering from writer's block. Maybe that's why this book is so short?

It's a long short story, maybe a novella, about how the Queen (of England) gets the reading habit. It's quite funny in the inimitable Alan Bennett style, very ironic, taking the mick out of prime ministers and anyone else around HM. Not so much out of her, though, taking a more sympathetic, and apparently understanding approach. As she increases the range of her reading she finds that people around her don't read (this is the UK), and it makes for difficult conversations. Also often when she tries to find someone with whom she can discuss her reading protocol interferes. The book says less about what she might be reading beyond the title and a snap quote or two.

Nice, light hospital reading, when you are in a queue waiting for your consultant, but not for an overnight stay. Given that it is a hardback there's too much weight to take it on a flight; what with airport waiting time it would not even keep you occupied for a hop across the channel. Shame - it could have been much more elaborate...


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Where's he been hiding?

Vytautas Sriubikis, that is. He's a flautist with a gorgeous sound and lovely interpretation - and he plays in the opera orchestra? (Not Lithuania's best orchestra, but flute jobs are hard to come by, I suppose). Still, it's nice for the opera audience, and I'm looking forward to hearing him in the Valkyrie on Saturday. He has a lovely flute with a metal headjoint and a wooden body.

Meanwhile tonight he played with the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra under the delightful Donatas Katkus, who I could swear, is becoming a bit of a shadow of his former self. Is he losing weight, too? Probably not a catastrophe.....

It was an interesting concert; I'm glad I went! Starting off with Schnittke's 'Suite in the ancient style' for flute and string orchestra, written for a film called 'Adventures of a dentist'. Schnittke is becoming known as one of the greatest Soviet composers of the last century. This was typical Schnittke. If you had not known the composer you would have thought it was old stuff, kind of baroque, and really consistent for a long while. Then you'd meet a little run which was a bit different, and a bit later there was a harmony that was screamingly pure Schnittke, really funny. The piece kind of petered out. It also seemed to be over faster than expected - maybe some of the movements were joined together? This was played beautifully by all - though perhaps the (new) first fiddler did not sound as assertive as she could have done.

Jurgis Juozapaitis' string symphony 'Hill of Crosses' followed. The Hill of Crosses, near Siauliai in Lithuania, not surprisingly is a hill covered in crosses, and a bit of a place of pilgrimage (Image from here). The piece sounded like an atonal description of a foggy morning on the hill which slowly, very slowly, turns tonal and evaporates into the ether. It's difficult for the orchestra because it's all divisi and I suspect you need to count like crazy. But they got it together. Do I need to hear it again?

Vytautas Sriubikis joined them for Jolivet's flute concerto; a very French kind of piece, 20th century with the structure of a 17th century sonata, slow fast slow fast, and short movements. It was nice and they all played it well. He really is a good soloist.

Second half was Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' arranged (and slightly recomposed, no?) for string orchestra by Mahler. Not that he got any credit in the programme - or was it someone else's version? And what was that with the first violins playing divisi? Loads of energy, in the usual St Christopher style, went into the performance, very rumbustious it was. Not entirely convinced about the second movement's tune, that it was played with separate bows; it sounded a bit pedestrian. I would have played it more legato, really smoothly. And the last movement's opening seemed to lack contrast a bit, but otherwise it was a great performance.

This really is the best chamber orchestra in Vilnius!


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nothing to be Modestas about

Tonight young Modestas Pitrenas introduced the adoring Vilnius public to his Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra (KCSO) . I hope next time more people will adore, because by the second half only about 200 people were left in the hall - the people not filling the empty seats don't know what they missed.

The KCSO was founded less than three years ago - now how many countries or cities can say they have founded a new symphony orchestra in the last 10 years? It's something seriously to be proud of! A short while later the delightful Modestas was appointed its chief conductor. A great choice, and I hope they will go far.

The orchestra is evenly balanced men/women, though of the instrumentalists holding a string instrument on their shoulders only one is a man (the leader of the band, and he is a good leader). The leader of the cello section looks quite blase when he plays a solo, but he draws a beautiful tone. At least one of the other orchestras in Vilnius should keep an eye on him. Mostly the players are under 40 and they have an enthusiasm that is not yet totally diminished (though it could even be higher).

The concert started with Arunas Navakas overture to the rock opera 'Peer Gynt' (you think you have heard it all now?). It did not have much rock about it, not having a discernible strong beat, and being a bit impressionistic. Though it had some American film music lines, as well as a chord that was pure Grieg. If I had paid money to go and see a rock opera I might have been asking for my money back at this stage. The orchestra played it nicely, and there were some great cello solos.

The solo-oboist of La Scala, Milan, Francesco di Rosa, then followed it with Strauss' oboe concerto, a nice piece (and following up Modestas' conducting of Salome of the week before). This was safe and sound, but lacked personality and inspiration. I wonder who uninspired whom. There was supposed to have been a viola solo but I missed it (the lead violist was on the wrong side of the conductor for me to see her). Her name as the soloist was announced at the start of the concert - a nice touch.

Finally Beethoven's 7th (which I have played - of the last 3 concerts I went to, I have played 4 pieces, either on vile-din or viola; quite a repertoire, no?). Watched this one from above the conductor, having slipped into the closed balcony when the staff were not looking. This was very interesting - first because having studied Beethoven's 5ths in considerable detail last year, I spotted some aspects that would just have washed over me, and partly because of the interpretation. I could have sworn that Modestas here had got an attack of the HIP approach, being economical on the vibratos, sometimes being able to bring out wonderful contrasts, eg using the strings quite percussively at times followed by an extremely smooth legato, the percussionist using hard sticks.....great stuff. One of the more interesting Beethoven performances I have heard in Lithuania for some time. He could have been even more consistent with this treatment, sometimes it worked stunningly, sometimes it did not, but I am sure he will get there. The winds could have been a little more inspired, perhaps, especially the flutes. Let's not talk about horns in Lithuania - it's time we dug some pits and started colliery bands to get people trained properly.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Slightly tarnished halo

Was watching this DVD about Jacqueline Du Pre last night, in absence of anything better on TV (Poulenc's Carmelites, isn't that one of the few modern operas with the viola d'amore? Yes, I should have watched it, but....). A slightly complicated DVD, trying to find the relevant bits; it seems to have more than one film about it. On my first attempt I found lots of snippets about all sorts of people (like Segovia and other non JDP people), then I came across a film called 'Remembering Jacqueline', and really late I found one other. There might be another one yet.

'Remembering Jacqueline' was ok; a collection of people talking about her after her death, interspersed with shots generally of her blue eyes. I did not much care for the extremely skinny American lady who was all perfect teeth and eyes, but I really liked her doctor who was the soul of professional discretion.

JDP is my gold standard as far as the Elgar is concerned (which I am sure I am still to find somewhere on this DVD) - and maybe I'll change my mind. In some of the other scenes I thought she was rather playing to the camera. There was an awesome moment when a quintet, including Zubin Mehta on double bass, swapped round their instruments. JDP ended up with a violin which she held upside down, and promptly launched, from memory, into the beginning of the Mendelssohn violin concerto (which she would not have been in much danger to get involved with normally).

What disturbed me, however, was her playing of the Kol Nidre. Not only did it accompany a scene which was not the most fitting (she and her beloved Danny were visiting the EMI recording studio, meeting the delightful Suvi Raj Grubb to discuss some Brahms recording; though she seemed to spend more time gazing into Danny's eyes), but her playing of it was rather jaunty, not that far off the Golliwog's Cakewalk. Those of us who heard Misha Maisky play this piece in Vilnius in 2004 will never cease to be moved by his sobbing interpretation of the piece (I wonder if he has recorded it). But then again, I suppose at the time JDP was young and had probably not at that stage experienced much pain and suffering.

What was also remarkable in the film, the live JDP scenes having been shot in the 60s and early 70s, was how much she seemed to be engaged in ordinary life; walking along the street with her (expensive?) cello in her hand, waiting at a bus stop...There's a lovely scene where she wanders along a street, away from the camera - as she disappears into the distance, a delivery boy's bicycle slowly topples over in the foreground. No doubt totally overcome by awe.

It's a stunning collection of films.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Homage to Ravel?

Not sure what Arvydas Malcys' 'Eccentric Bolero' was trying to say in tonight's concert of the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra (LNSO). We were reminded that it is 80 years ago that Ravel's Bolero was first performed, but this? It started with an impressionistic kind of sound wall, which went on for quite a while and I wondered - how would you dance to this? But then the fog lifted and a snare drum rhythm appeared (not quite as complex as Ravel's) with a little tune in the oboes (?) and the cellos, and with the whole thing becoming denser and denser, much in the way of the Ravel Bolero, including increasingly Ravel's thematic bits (though I spotted a tiny moment of West Side Story, too), and finally an end similar to that of Ravel - rather short and abrupt. Now, if I were able to write music, and wished to pay homage to Ravel's Bolero, I might have done several of the following:

  • dropped the first impressionistic bit
  • taken on the snare drum rhythm but maybe passed it round bits of the orchestra, or given someone else the rhythm first (what about a col legno on the strings to start off with?)
  • stretched and shortened the tempo (a bit like 'A drunk man dances the Bolero')
  • used completely different material (there must be more than one tune for this dance) and interspersed it with Ravel's bits
  • turned Ravel's bits upside down and back to front
  • stretched out the end in a Beethovian kind of way
  • had less of a consistent increase in noise but thrown in solo bits here and there
...just for a few ideas. In terms of market value I suspect that people may always prefer the original.

Myaskovsky's (who??) cello concerto followed, played by Georgi Goryunov. Myaskovsky (1881-1950) was a Russian composer, who first trained as an engineer and then as a composer, becoming friends with Prokofiev. Like most composers of this period (anywhere in the world, even if not living in the Stalin regime) he went through various phases of compositional style including experimentation with harmonies stretched very far. The cello concerto is very conventional, however, with a hint, I thought, of Soviet Realism. It's very pleasant and has whistle-able tunes - I am sure the theme of the first movement came round again at the end of the last movement - but it does not have that much depth. It's quite tonal, and makes beautiful use of the sound quality of cellos. No strange noises here. It's not very virtuosic, apart from the last movement, but someone who draws a beautiful sound out of a cello can make good use of it. Goryunov did so, with a lovely tone, and totally in control. Maybe he could have wrung out more emotion here or there, but it was a solid, sound performance.

Finally Tchaik 4, which the orchestra plays very often - I thought they could play it in their sleep, but I am told it was rehearsed all week. It was powerful stuff, with some lovely clarinet solo work, and a nice timp/violins interaction in the second movement. The violins played their hearts out!


Friday, January 18, 2008

We are an Ambassador!

It's official - see here! I'm an Ambassador for Vilnius 2009, when Vilnius becomes European Capital of Culture. (So are probably around 1000 other people....). I get a badge, a diary, and some postcards to send to people....

No diplomatic passport, unfortunately.

And maybe one day I'll find out how to add the ambassador's logo, an .ai file, to my blog.


The Gustavo Dudamel School of Conducting

Young Estonian Olari Elts, tonight's conductor of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, must have been busy watching the even younger Gustavo Dudamel's conducting videos. The same arms high up in the air, the conducting for expression (he does not seem to do beats), pulling the expression out of the orchestra, shushing them when they are too loud, often holding on to the conductor-guard, sometimes doing nothing - it was great watching him! My friends in Scotland should know that he is the principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - look out for him! (How does the SCO always get these talented and usually young people? There was Joseph Swensen, that lovely and lively Alexander Janiczek as the first fiddler....).

He really, really did his best, and most of the time the orchestra paid attention and followed him. But here is a message to engrave in the orchestra management's heart:

Never Ever Play A Piece That Starts With A Cello Solo!

Every time I hear this orchestra I forget just how bad the cello section is, until they start playing. Since Mindaugas Backus left, that is. If the cello leader were a social security official, she would be sitting in front of her desk, which might be full of paper but that paper would not move, nor would she, and every time a client entered her room, they would be greeted with a miserable face expressing annoyance that perhaps this official might have to do some work. But it's only this official - some of the others in that section have a pulse. Questions of leadership arise in orchestras, too. God help the orchestra if they ever want to play the William Tell overture.

So we started with Kodaly's Dances of Galanta. I've played this in Hungary, with a Hungarian conductor, and while our amateur orchestra had multifarious issues relating to the right notes at the right time, boy, did we do the spirit of the piece! Here the cellos fiddled down the opening which should be taut, full of tension, waiting for what happens next ....it was a muddy, enjoyment-lacking playing of notes. The following entry by the horns - hmmm, the horns in that orchestra are another question - there could be a job for young Zoltán Mácsay who played this piece with us in Hungary lots better. These horns, too were just muddy - maybe they had been 'inspired' by the cellos. Delightful Zbignievas Levickas, the leader, did a lovely Austro-Hungarian thing where he microscopically delayed the entrances in another section; shame that his group did not follow him. And the first flautist did a solo in an almost Klezmerish way - very interesting. They did not quite get the passion of the piece - they could have been more elastic with tempi etc, but you know, Northern temperaments and Hungarian music, even if Estonians have a related language. (Earlier today I listened to György Pauk's recording of a Bartok violin sonata - what a difference! He has fun and he takes big risks!)

Nikita Borisoglebsky (listen to him on this You Tube link) and the band followed this with Sibelius' violin concerto. Young Nikita won the second prize at the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition last year, just beating the German Yuki Manuela Janke (who's one of at least 3 Janke children of whom two are prize winning violinists and there's a pianist, too). Apparently at the competition he won the audience prize. Now, it was ok; there were a few smudges, but in general I thought that the phrases did not quite hang together - they stopped to early, and the tension was not there (tension = word for today). Also he and the orchestra seemed to have different ideas about tempo from time to time. Then suddenly, 3 minutes before the end, it all came together stunningly. He followed this with two encores; one was a virtuosic 20th century treatment of someone else's theme (and if he had not played the second encore I might have kept the tune in my head to check it out later), and having thoroughly wound up the audience, he finished with a quiet movement from a Bach solo partita or sonata, very nicely played, walking on the knife edge between romantic and historically correct. In both these he seemed vastly more comfortable (perhaps because he did not have a tricky orchestra to deal with?).

Brahms' first finished the concert. Someone should have had a stopwatch - it seemed very brisk indeed. The conductor shot into the first movement, timps going like the clappers, and the violin solo at the end of the second movement had a friskiness quite of its own. Elts danced away on the podium, pulled out the dynamics
from each fiddle almost personally with his fingers, the oboist's hair's parting went red with the effort, the double bassists had a lot of fun in their corner; the cellos pottered along the way sluggishly (though the back desks did their best)....it was very enjoyable. If the orchestra would have gone all the way with Elts who knows how they might have played. I suppose even if Dudamel were bouncing up and down in front of the cellos, he would get no response.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whose Dance of the Seven Veils?

Don't know what was scarier - the multitude of health and safety breaches on stage, or the thought of Salome (Sigute Stonyte) possibly taking off her clothes. Suspect, though, that Ms Stonyte usually Gets Her Own Way, and that Taking Off Her Clothes In Public is not one of them. Thank you for small mercies. Other singers have done it, Barbara Ewing in New York, and La Netrebko would love to do it...others might concur with that dream....This review talks about Salome as the 'teenage temptress'. 'Teenage', eh? Ms Stonyte has been an opera house soloist since 1985.

Salome, out of Oscar Wilde's pen and with Richard Strauss' stunning music, has a plot not for sensitive souls. Herod, her stepfather fancies her, so does Narraboth, a young army officer. She fancies Jokanaan (John the Baptist), but he only talks to God. Then there is a bit of confusion between the opera's actual plot and the Vilnius plot, but it, er, gets the plot again, and Salome uses the cracked record technique to get to kiss Jokanaan. In which she succeeds.

Ms Stonyte sang the title role very well indeed; could not understand any words (it was in German, I speak fluent German), but realised, when she sang the word 'eris' which should have been 'er ist' that she joins words together. It's a huge role, and the singing of the notes was awesome. Pawel Wunder, however, as Herod, outsang and out-acted everyone. I had not seen him before, and wondered who he was - we definitely need to hang on to him (I see he's from Kazakhstan). He was stunning! I understood more words, too. Johannes von Duisburg, too, as his namesake, was excellent, but he did not have that much to do - though he had plenty of behind the scenes singing. And young Modestas Pitrenas, the conductor, had nothing to be modest about - almost two hours of solid conducting of an extremely complex piece of music with not a break is a challenge, which he mastered well. The orchestra played well, too.

But the plot? Generally it was ok, but there were serious changes. Leaving aside the discrepancies of Salome singing to John the Baptist 'your body is whiter than any I have seen' (which might be realistic given he's been in an underground dungeon) but in fact he is covered in dirt, more seriously she also sang, basically 'I want your body'. Shame that the production made her stand in the middle of the stage, leaning away from him, and him clinging to the wall at the side of the stage. All she sang was about getting in the sack with him, yet her body, well wrapped in black, told a totally different story ('Keep away from me; jeez, don't you realise how you smell?'). Does no-one know about body language? Not sure about Ms Stonyte and acting 'sexy' though.

And then what was this thing with the 6 little girls on the stage, in frilly salmon-pink empire-type dresses (including Salome, also in knee high socks) while her mother, very amply built indeed, but belly dancers should be thus, did the dance of the seven veils? But then Herod had asked her to dance, and she said 'over my dead body'; in fact, she made him take off his clothes instead (almost all).

The set itself was a Soviet kind of place/palace, ca 1970, with the wallpaper and the (I am sure original) furniture to match. The opera has lots of parts with about 3 words each, and these were faithfully filled. The production was very gripping, edge of seat stuff (Salome's final aria - and there are not that many arias - was heart-breaking). I'd go again.

Health and Safety? Where do I start? The sloping stage with the ancient chair on which people stand and which they sing from, while holding on to a wobbly fake wall? The chap crawling across the stage, laying a cable, taping it down as he should, but the tape does not stick? The axe that slipped of the stage into the pit at the percussion end (no-one hurt)?


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Lugubrious Gondola, or Mindaugas Backus and friends

Mindaugas Backus, the most talented young Lithuanian cellist of his generation living in Lithuania, is a bit of an intellectual. He lives for his art, and I suspect his boredom threshold is low. You would probably not find him, like Rostropovich, Maisky or Geringas playing a Haydn Cello Concerto 20 times a year or more. Some years ago he studied in Manchester with Ralph Kirshbaum, then returned to the front desk of a local orchestra (boy, does that orchestra miss him!), but now he works freelance.

When he gives a concert, you can always expect to be challenged. With the string quartet Chordos which he plays in he is at the forefront of anything that's new, and often exciting, often playing music where the ink is still went on the page.

Not having checked the programming of tonight's concert, I assumed we'd have at least one radically new piece. Wrong. But the programming was nevertheless interesting and unusual - though sometimes I wonder if Mindaugas is doing his bank balance much good with that. With Daumantas Kirilauskas, a young Lithuanian pianist who accompanies all the higher level instrumentalists, and the actor Valentinas Masalskis, the first half of the concert they presented was hard work, frankly. Not to say depressing.

Three pieces for cello and piano by Liszt were not like the Liszt we know and love, of Hungarian Prelude fame, but from the end of his life, when he had got religion and taken holy orders. All slow pieces, they included the 'Lugubrious Gondola', 'The Cell in Nonnenwerth' and the 'Second Elegy'. The pieces were slow, very transparent, not virtuosic, and incredibly fragmented - kind of ideas floating off into the ether. They were interspersed with the never-ending mohologue of a guy about to commit suicide, from Mickiewicz's play 'Forefather's Eve'. Masalskis is a good actor, who did a memorable performance in the film 'Dievu Miskas' (the forest of the gods) about the Stutthof concentration camp (for politicals rather than Jews). This monologue was more of a miniplay for one, going through the usual (e)motions that, in plays, suicidal people go through - sadness, happy memories, despair - someone should do a sociological analysis of such speeches, including also Papageno's of the Magic Flute. But eventually it ended.

The second half included Schumann's Fantasiestuecke op 73, which I know so well, people must play them on viola and piano, too, though a viola professional of my acquaintance did not know them as such. I see they are more often programmed by clarinet (which is often equivalent to the viola). Finally we heard Frank Bridge's sonata in d-minor, also slightly hard work, especially for the cellist - bit of a monumental work, this, and it stops after the second movement (thankfully). I see he wrote it over 4 years. Seems promising, but I'd want to hear it again to get the hang of it.

Backus played beautifully, as ever, with lots of engagement, and was well partnered by Kirilauskas. Once or twice there was a moment of dodgy intonation, but overall he just showed the vast difference between him and some of the other players we have, with his total command and control over his instrument. He draws a wonderful sound out of his instrument; maybe he could have drawn slightly more in the Liszt pieces, but that's only quibbling. What I would like to see, though, is more communication with the audience - mainly he communes with his beloved cello. If I think of my favourite young cellist Giorgi Kharadze and the way he communicates with everyone around him, including each audience member individually, there's a bit of a gap. Shame, because Mindaugas is an outgoing person otherwise. Even with the pianist, not a look was exchanged. It would have been difficult, given the traditional Lithuanian position of him sitting in front to the cellist, kind of back to back with him. Might it be an idea to sit nearer the centre of the stage, in front of the piano so he can turn easily to the pianist for communication?

I wonder what he would sound like in something more well-known and traditional.....


Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Julius Stern Institute in Berlin provides training for highly talented musical children who are too young for university (but surely German music universities have young students - Jung-studenten - too?).

The pupils are called 'Sternkinder', based on the name of the institute's founder ('Stern' = 'star'). This is doubly unfortunate:
1) afflicting them with the expression 'star' at a young age, and
2) my mother, who was alive at the time, tells me that in Germany between 1933 and 1945 'Sternkinder' were children who had to wear a star sewn onto their clothes. Jewish children, in other words whose life expectancy was limited.

Double ouch! But the institute has been around, in various forms, since 1850....


Saturday, January 12, 2008

13 January Memorial Concert

On 13 January 1991, at the TV tower in Karoliniskes, Vilnius, Russian tanks under the orders of that nice Mr Gorbachev, mowed down 13 Lithuanian men and one woman who were in a group peacefully defending the TV transmission system located in the tower. These events, televised throughout the world, led, eventually, to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

On January 12th every year since then, a concert by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra has taken place in St John's Church in the University commemorating this event. The key piece is 'Sutartines' (it means something like 'little folk harmonies') by Schnittke, a 3 minute piece which he wrote in solidarity and memory of the events. It's an awesome piece, starting with a viola solo of a simple little melody, which the viola soloist and his front desk colleague play non stop throughout the piece, as the other instruments join in in an increasing noise, roar and gun noises, before dying away again, leaving the little melody carrying on before it dies away. It's a magnificent depiction of tanks rolling over fragile flowers. There is one violist in Lithuania, Petras Radzevicius, who plays this little melody to perfection, with the right amount of feeling, expression and child-like gay abandon - under all the noise. Sadly, he did not play tonight.

Some prat sitting near me started to applaud when the band came on stage at the start of the concert; this is the one occasion - a memorial concert - where you would not do that, until later in the concert. He was not well supported; I thought the leader of the orchestra gave a little scowl.

'Sutartines' was followed by the usual Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra programming. A strange little concerto grosso by Vivaldi; very early (RV 129), and overwhelming the audience who should then have applauded and did not; two elegaic pieces by Grieg (incredibly slushy and not played slushily enough), and then the Siauliai choir 'Polifonija' came on. Actually, it's not a bad choir - good at their pianos and enunciation.

Vaclovas Augustinas' (he's still alive and young) a capella piece (not on the programme) was a fairly traditional choral setting of something; could have been a weaker baroque piece had it not been for a bit of triteness in the men's voices. Algirdas Martinaitis, a respected Lithuanian composer, in his 50s, (brother Jurgis [?] is a poet), had written an Agnus Dei for mezzo, choir and orchestra. It was kind of neo-romantic (he also writes much more modern stuff), with I think a few gun noises thrown in [but difficult to tell in a public church where people wander in even during concerts]). This lamb of god was certainly carrying the sins of the world, but at various stages it also seemed to throw them off and gambol around the countryside, kicking its little legs in the air. Nicely sung by Ieva Prudnikovaite (who's changed her haircut to a heavy fringe - before, with all her hair long, she always had rather a noble brow), the choir and played by the orchestra.

Mozart's Ave Verum; what can you say - there was a moment when they choir could have been more legato; otherwise it was ok. Finally Schubert's Mass in G Major (written in a week in 1815); quite a classical piece, and also short. Apparently after Schubert's Death the mass was nicked by another composer, who ended up in prison for embezzlement. Here you wonder why you pay for soloists; their parts are so short, it's hardly worth them sitting on the stage and getting all nervous - could not the better choir members have done it? Probably not - there's a difference between even the best choir member and the professional soloist. The 3 soloists did well; Asta Kriksciunaite and Ignas Misiura are old hands at this game; I had not seen Rafailis Karpis (tenor) before; he had about 3 words ....

It was an ok concert; it served its purpose - you go more for the emotional moment than for the music. You'd never expect musical brilliance at this kind of concert. For that the orchestra needs a number of well-aimed kicks up their collective backsides.


Changes at the British Council

The British Council (BC), which is not actually part of the British government (officially), but a charity, is undergoing changes yet again. It's not the Russian Question where they are forced to close all regional representations. According to the Guardian it's changes in the arts department: 'The British Council is planning a radical shakeup in the way it delivers arts abroad, and part of that will entail scrapping its long-established arts departments, including visual arts, theatre, film and dance'.

Note that music is not mentioned, but the track record of BC on music has been hip hop rather than classical in recent years. That's great marketing to countries like Lithuania, where the establishment, as well as many young people (viz last night's standing room only performance of a Gluck opera) is still into classical music.

In Lithuania, too, we will have changes. In about 2003 BC moved into a very nice, modern building, with a stunning, state of the art designed library and information centre - which is also where I used to sit my OU exams. Just before Christmas I received a letter saying that:
'BC will no longer offer public access information services in most of our offices in the European Union. Information Centre in Vilnius will be closed to re-open in our partner institution' (which seems to be an arts centre somewhere in the Old Town). Will they be able to transfer the internal glass walls from a 2001 building to a building of the 17th century or so?

The overall, strategic changes have caused uproar in the British arts establishment - make that the fine arts and acting establishment. I don't think I've spotted one musician in the list of 120 signatories of the letter to the Guardian (in the olden days one used to write to The Times...). Have musicians given up on BC long ago?

So who can British classical musicians rely on for marketing abroad (pop musicians market themselves). British ambassadors? It would make a cat laugh! I know one ambassador with an abiding interest in classical music, but the rest? Oh dear, oh dear.....

Keep looking after your agents!


Friday, January 11, 2008


Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridice' at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Vilnius tonight - premiered only last October. What a production! It's breath-taking - and very daring!

I don't know why I always think of it as a baroque opera when it's firmly written in the classical period (I know that there are at least two baroque operas based on the same story, by Monteverdi and, well, it's 'La Morte de Orfeo, by Landi - not quite the same topic). It's ...just so baroque, with its shortness, its recitatives and da capo arias, its baroque style dances.

The story is the usual; Orfeo has lost his wife, Euridice, and goes looking for her in the underworld. He finds her, but is not allowed to look at her; when he does, she dies again. Cue famous aria. And a few bits in between. Actually, it seems I know the opera quite well.

There have been many performance difficulties over the time; the role of Orfeo has been variously sung by an alto castrato (for whom it was written), a soprano castrato (which threw everything out of balance), usually by women pretending to be men, but this time it was a counter tenor, 25-year-old Alon Harari from Israel. Kind of complicated, no? There are also questions over some of the pieces, especially the overture which is a bit weak.

It seems that Jonas Jurasas, the Lithuanian producer, is full of ideas. They got round the overture problem by playing it in the foyer while the audience was still ambling to their seats.


there is a general noise, which becomes louder and louder, screechier and screechier, as the curtains open to ...

the ruins of the World Trade Centre, where a crowd of desperate onlookers is being held back by firemen and tap. More firemen storm the stage from the audience side. The music begins. Out of the middle of the audience comes a desperate cry 'Euridice!' And again, and again. What a start!

Orfeo storms to the stage, the people around him give him pictures of loved ones, but he does not find his Euridice among them. Some diaphanous women dance around him. Amor appears wearing a hard hat, floating on air on the right hand side of the stage. Some musicians play on the stage. There's a large black box in the middle of the WTC ruins which looks like both the Ka'bah in Mecca, or a bit like the memorial to the holocaust in Vienna. This moves in and out and around, and forms a stage within a stage. In between firemen keep dashing across the stage.

The furies scene is very colourful, with some dancers dressed in red representing fire, and others with wild and wonderful wigs as the furies. The blessed spirits are dressed in calm beiges, yellows and greys, and are very calm.

Near the end the conductor dashes on the stage, picks up Amor's arrow, and ends the opera using it as a baton.

Alon Harari was generally great, though by far the best moment was right at the beginning. I wonder how his voice would project to the end of the theatre. This role is a monumental task - basically the opera is a monologue for one, with a few words thrown in by Amor and an aria or two by Euridice, who spends most of the time dead. I thought that in the famous aria 'Che faro senza Euridice' he was too brisk, and not heart-broken enough - maybe he was tired by then. (Incidentally, if he is dressed like a builder, might it be an idea to paint some muscles on him?)

Similarly the orchestra was far too brisk in the dance of the blessed spirits; it launched itself into it, slowed down for the middle bit, and then shot off again on the repeat. I wondered if the flautist had breathing challenges there - there were odd breaks (I play a junior version and I have the same problem - but I ain't have had the professional training). It was funny that they played taped birdsong over the theme the first time it came around.

Asmik Grigorian, another Lithuanian singer studying in London, seems to have changed the timbre of her voice - I had a memory of it being brighter a year or two ago (she could sing very high and very loud), but this time it seemed warmer. Maybe it's the pitch of the arias, but in any case it was very nice. Her rendition of the aria 'Che fiero momento', where she expresses her grief at Orfeo's apparent infidelity, was masterful.

Now, the precision of classical music is not usually the orchestra's strength, and as usual the winds let the band down. The playing could have been much more precise, and at the same time emotional - 'and now again, with feeling'! A few dynamics here and there, sort of thing.

The choir, unfortunately, deserves particular comment. The movements were nice, the costumes were nice, but oh dear, oh dear, the singing! Yes, all the notes were in the right places. But there's a difference between the furies and, say, the blessed spirits. If I had been the choirmaster, I would have made the furies spit out every word individually, spit, spit, spit - aggression, aggression, aggression! Everything was sung the same, whether it involved grief, happiness, or fury. Or was the choir meant to be the BBC commentators and analysts?

If you are not an opera fanatic, or music aficinado, do go and see the show - you'll enjoy it - nice music, interesting action. You may think I'm quibbling. I just want to get high quality into the opera house.

Anyway, boring it was not!

(Picture from the LNOBT)


Thursday, January 10, 2008

They lost some swans?

Really did not mean to review the Vilnius 'Swan Lake', having seen it umpteen times, and probably reviewed it before. (Actually, it seems, I haven't).

OK then; like 'La Bayadere', a sumptuous production with beautiful costumes, and the nice Miki Hamanaka and the lovely Nerijus Juska as the main protagonists. The full fairy tale experience, with the traditional steps by Petipa. Orchestra played quite well, under Robertas Servenikas - winds a little rough, as often, but the oboe and the solo violin did their solos beautifully (who is that violinist?).

I thought Ms Hamanaka was a bit perfunctionary in the second act when she was the white swan (Odette); she was more in charge in the third act as the bad, bad, black swan (Odile) - but actually, I preferred the dancer who did this part triumphantly in Tbilisi (whose name continues to escape me). Here Ms Hamanaka was just a little too fragile. Nerijus Juska danced Siegfried beautifully, oh so elegantly in his white tights. Aurelijus Daraskevicius was powerful as the baddy Prince von Rothbart - our Aurelijus somehow seems to be pre-destined to play baddies; in 'Zorba the Greek' he does a great thing with menacing knees. Valerijus Fadejevas was a wonderful fool, though his knees could have been straighter at times; the jumps were a bit limited - but the personality was great - he could even have done it a bit more over the top. I see he is getting on a bit.

The swans - well yes, the swans - they were beautiful, but I could have sworn that on one side of the stage were two less than on the other side. Hmmm. I suspect the original version may have had more than 20 or so swans. In the four little swans thing (think Morecambe and Wise, if you are British) I got the impression that one of the cygnets was new. You know how they all do identical movements, while their hands are crossed in front of them? So all the feet go and the heads bob up and down and sideways, and they never look at each other. Imagine the horror of being a ballerina in this and suddenly you look into the eyes of the person next to you - which of you is in the wrong? It was only the tiniest moment, though.

The house was packed, but the applause for the conductor - oh dear! I sat at the wrong side of the auditorium and was horrified when I suddenly saw him standing on his podium ready for take-off. After the interval I concentrated on his entrance, spotted it, and had to do a long solo-applause before people launched in! Much like Molly Flatt of the Guardian who does lone standing ovations.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

An abundance of sumptiousness

Put together an Indian story, music written by a Czech (at the time Greater Austrian) composer (Minkus) in St Petersburg, a Russian choreographer (Petipa), the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, a Japanese prima ballerina (Miki Hamanaka) and what do you get? The sumptious fairytale production of 'La Bayadère', just premiered in Vilnius.

It's a wonderful production, and has everything a 19th century producer might have imagined about India. Luscious and lovingly painted sets, stunning costumes revealing at times the emaciation (at other times Not The Emaciation) of the dancers, Mowgli moments (if the costumes for the jungle men, were not likely to be the original costume design, I would swear they were straight out of Jungle Book, the movie), opportunities for the ballet school pupils to take part and get their faces painted black, an elephant and parrots, quite nice music fairly well played (the violin solo in the third act was wonderful!).

A bayadère is an Indian temple dancer. I thought that meant that she'd be all chaste and virginal, but apparently not. This one loves a young prince and he loves her; he is promised to another woman and seems not averse to that woman, too; in the middle of it is the high Brahmin (the head of the temple) who loves the bayadère, too; the bayadère is distraught when she discovers that arrangements are made for her young prince and the other young woman; whose father arranges for the young woman to be dealt with, after which her young prince dreams of her (in an opium haze - would That Sort of Thing be allowed nowadays in a stage show?).

Miki Hamanaka was outstanding as the bayadère. She is so different from our Egle Spokaite, and it would have been interesting how she would have interpreted the role. Hamanaka is so fragile (no wonder she was being lifted up all the time; when she was you'd think she would break across in the middle - it was quite a relief to the audience when in the last act she wore a costume that covered the very visible bones of her ribs). Her dance when she discovered that her dream prince was spoken for was heart-breaking. The High Brahmin was very funny; dressed in a long red frock with a diamond encrusted flower pot on his head, he was all dramatic gestures and waving of arms - he looked really scary.

When you go to see the show you need to put out of your mind anything you know or have seen on TV about India, its casts and its temple dancers. Remember that this was written in cold St Petersburg in 1877 when there were no films, no jet travel and little access to Indian sounds. So, think fairytale because that's what it is. Bayadères were a bit all the rage at the time; a group of these had visited France from India in 1835, Taglioni had written a ballet-opera about them (The God and the Bayadère), and even Johann Strauss (which one?) had written the Bayadère Polka, a dance probably most unlike anything a real bayadère would ever perform. Similarly Minkus music has nothing Indian about it, apart from a few augmented seconds in the Mowgli moments.

Basically it's a standard romantic ballet, with the pas de deux, and the scene at the court where lots of different dancers show their steps (think Swan Lake, Nutcracker and all the others). Actually the show could stop at the end of the second act. The final act, the dream scene, is straight out of Swan Lake, costumes, dances and all (and in fact Petipa produced that only a year before this one), and I wondered if Petipa thought that 'this is not long enough, please write something more, Mr Minkus'. Actually, it turns out that there was a fourth act involving the destruction of a temple, but that has been dropped roughly since the Russian revolution. With three acts it's quite long enough!


Thursday, January 03, 2008

About five minutes after....

....I blogged about the point of CDs here, when it's so much easier to download (legally) music, I finally worked out how to connect my Ipod to my not too bad hi-fi system.

Wow! I now know why I should still buy CDs. Funny how the Ipod is ok in the ear, but not when run though a quality amplifier when the sounds lose their richness. It's annoying that with the Ipod you are a bit stuck with the Itunes system, which only allows a maximum sample rate of 192 bps. My older, clunky Iriver, which did not take kindly to being taken on a run, allowed an almost double sample rate (and even complete copies, taking up huge amounts of memory space). It was also much easier to load and manage.

The problem with sound is confirmed by Robert Levine here [on the Rolling Stone website], when he says that sound quality is getting worse and worse - and in an age of Ipods no-one complains (until they do what I did...). He complains about music being made louder and louder, which can't be good for people's ears; in addition the technique results in a compression of sounds, taking out much of the excitement of music. On the other hand, listening to classical music on a European Ipod in a noisy environment, you'll miss the quiet bits. European Ipods are set not to exceed a certain sound level; hope onto an Austrian Airlines Dash 8-400 with it and all you can listen to is baroque music, which does not do dynamics that much. Schnittke/Kancheli? Forget it.

Ipods are obviously not made for classical music - not even the Ipod classic. But for those of us who travel a lot it's a godsend. As memory is reduced further in size, I hope that soon we can enjoy a higher bitrate very soon!


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Your Brain on Music

David Levitin's book 'This is Your Brain on Music' was heavily discussed on the viola list when it came out just under a year ago (the link leads you to the associated website). It may have been the 'Mozart effect' debate or it may have been the 'old dogs can't learn new tricks' debate.

David Levitin was a musician, sound engineer and record producer before academe beckoned. He now runs the Laboratory for musical perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal (strange how often people refer to McGill without specifying the location...).

The basic question he tries to answer is 'why does music move us?' Not sure that he totally succeeds in answering it, but perhaps that's not the point. He certainly outlines the latest research in this field, which is a mixture of physical brain research and psychology.

Since the audience of the book won't be all highly trained classical musicians he uses many examples both of classical music and also of pop and rock music. The latter two are rather meaningless to me. When I see mention of 'Stairway to Heaven' all I can think of is Rolf Harris and his what-do-you call-it board - but I don't know the tune (I think). But never mind.

To address as wide an audience as possible he begins by discussing music, rhythm etc, expectation, and the interaction of mind and music, involving also memory (eg that of pleasant associations with particular pieces of music - 'it's our song'). This leads the more experienced musician reader into a deceptive sense of security - hey, this is an easy read!

Then it gets technical, oy veh! It goes into brain anatomy, frontal lobes, the cerebrellum, mentions neurons and synapses and how things are connected, talks about the different levels of brain activity - eg the auditory centre which simply processes the sounds and other areas which organise the sound into meaning based on previous knowledge and experience (whether it's speech, music or the sound of the car crash outside on the road). Apparently the brain, when observed in a scanner, fires on all cylinders when hearing music. Which is good news because if you get a serious bump on the head chances are that your ability to deal with music may be compromised but rarely totally destroyed, unlike speech, for example. Still it is written quite accessibly; it's just that I find the different technical names for the parts of the brain hard to deal with - maybe a couple of little maps of the brain, horizontally and vertically, would have helped.

His discussion on 'talent' is very interesting. People tend to think that musical talent is inborn, but actually he suggests that while certain children pick up skills faster than others, and are better at identifying patterns than others, much of the musical prowess lies in the roughly 10,000 hours of work they have to do to get there. I'm inclined to agree, and I suspect that also the home environment plays a strong role. A child who picks up manual skills quickly, understands musical patterns AND is encouraged at home is more likely to become a musician than one where the parents whinge every time the child picks up a fiddle. And in which homes are children more encouraged to pick up an instrument and to practise it? In the homes of existing practicing musicians, who can also supervise practice, making it more efficient. Though if the child is not interested, that is the end of that, regardless of encouragement. In addition I would suggest that the child needs to have the self-confidence to express their emotion (whether it's verbally or in the playing of music) - again a tender plant easily snuffed out by parental disapproval - otherwise he or she will just become a technical musician , but not a musical one. Skills and intelligence are good, interest makes it better, but parental approval and support is essential.

On the link between intelligence and music (eg the 'Mozart effect') Levitin suggests that experiments showing that music increases intelligence were flawed. I suspect that the causality of successful musicians being highly intelligent is not because of the music, but because of the intelligence - their ability to identify patterns helps them to become better musicians. Though if a child receives musical education early, would they be able to transpose their ability to spot patterns to other fields?

Discussing the liking of certain types of music, Levin first suggests that much of this is set in the first 20 years of life, though people may change and develop a little beyond that. I remember being told as a child that 'this music is too difficult for you', so for many years all I had was a diet of Mozart and Bach (pop music did not happen at home). Some of the difficulty may have lain in my total inability to sit still in a concert hall, and music beyond Mozart is longer. But having seen children in concerts of complex contemporary music I am not so sure about feeding children a diet of particular pieces of music - I would let them hear anything, whether it's new or old (pop music .... ask me another, though my son who at boarding school was exposed to all sorts of music has developed a very interesting and sophisticated musical taste).

Leviting goes on to suggest that in general the liking of particular pieces of music is linked to levels of complexity (though he appreciates that this is not the only factor). Different people have different thresholds for levels of complexity; what appears trite and trivial to some, is much appreciated by others. Contemporary music with its dissonances, sometimes to the level of painful, and unexpected turns can be so challenging that it turns people off (though on the other hand, we don't hear it enough to become familiar with it). He says that people have a certain safety threshold beyond they may not cross. Well, yes, though there may be all sorts of reasons. When I lived in Scotland and could not afford to go to many concerts, I did not buy tickets for any that I might not like (eg contemporary music). In Lithuania tickets are much cheaper (not so much now), and I have been going to lots of contemporary music concerts - there's some interesting stuff around. Now I have many CDs of contemporary music, though I must admit listening to them more when my Ipod is on shuffle.

Levitin suggests that people surrender themselves to music, where they trust a composer with part of their hearts and their spirits, allowing themselves to become more vulnerable with music (and a total stranger) than anyone else. This is an interesting idea. It suggests that music works at a much deeper level than, say, verbal communication. It makes you wonder what the world might be like if people communicated as well with people as they do with music.

It's a very well written book, though it is a bit hard work. He has lovely moments of humour, eg where he discusses that a certain aspect can only be studied by looking at a piece of brain, and most people might not find that very pleasant. It does take a bit of dedication - it might be an idea to take it with you to a place where you have no other distractions.

On the website apparently you can listen to samples of the music being discussed in this book. Not sure that I'll bother to listen to 'Stairway to Heaven'. And oh yes, old dogs have difficulties in learning new tricks - bad news for my piano practice.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008


The wonderful young cellist Giorgi Kharadze (I blogged about him here, and in other places) has won the Beethoven-Ring of the City of Bonn. This is a prize that has been awarded only three times before (it's a new prize...) to Gustavo Dudamel, and the violinists Julia Fischer and Lisa Batiashvili (also a Georgian). Not sure what the prize entails, but congratulations! Both Kharadze and Batiashvili grew up and therefore trained abroad, one in France, the other in Germany, though they now both live in Germany.

Another (3rd) prizewinner of the Aeolus competition in Dusseldorf, Germany is the Hungarian horn player Zoltán Mácsay; his fellow countryman Balazs Toth won the first prize with his trumpet (and he shares his name with a footballer, which is a bit of a shame when you google him). Zoltan used to play with the amateur orchestra I played in in Hungary, organised by a German organisation together with an expatriate Hungarian. We always needed support in the winds - if you get together a lot of unauditioned amateurs it may be ok in the strings, but it can be tricky in the soloistic winds. One time there was that oboist who always tuned flat....(only himself, which made it worse). So Zoltan and his other student colleagues did much to hold us together, despite also having a very good time at night..... One time he played a horn concerto (Haydn?) with us. He's a great horn player and I'm glad he's moving on in the world. The Aeolus competition also seems to be a new competition (this year it will be for flute, oboe, and trombone) - it's great that interest seems to be developing again in classical music.


Overwhelmed by offerings

So it's New Year Day's morning, I switch on the telly for the New Year's Day concert from Vienna and find, flicking though the channels - a repeat of the Simon Bolivar concert on arte, a rehearsal of Fledermaus by Harnoncourt on 3sat, the New Year's Concert on ZDF, and the Magic Flute on ZDF Theaterkanal (German TV is what I watch here, though I can also see Spanish TV and lots of others, but nothing good British).

What a choice.....seen the first, the third is the same all the time (just check whether our favourite Vienna Phil violist, Tobias Lea, is playing but it must be his year off, and there is insufficient coverage of the second violins to check whether his identical twin brother is playing), the Magic Flute will be repeated throughout the month (last month they had a fabulous, traditional, Fledermaus, from Munich in 1986. There was also a very different 'Dido and Aeneas' with lots of almost naked bodies, athletic dancing produced by Sasha Waltz, the choreographer. If you are a chubby singer it's not so good being covered in small skin-coloured briefs. ... I grabbed the score and could hardly find the place - had she jumbled up the piece? It seemed to stop somewhere in the middle...; and at the same time another channel showed an extremely gloomy Nutcracker, all in black and with modern dance, but not without its moments of magic).

So Harnoncourt it was, with occasional flicks to the other place in Vienna. It was interesting that the Wiener Symphonieorchester which he conducted, and which I think plays at the Volksoper, was still capable of playing Strauss quite so woodenly. Did they really need to be told by Harnoncourt about lots of little things, like fading in/out, not quite ramming down some beats and so on? In some places I might have gone further than him in hamming up the piece, but that might have become a parody....

And the singers - there's always a Diva, isn't there? In this case some man who was not within the shot at all, but suddenly leaned a long way around the person beside him to make some smart-alecky comment.

You wonder why I watch TV a lot?


Feliz año nuevo!

So, at 2 am Lithuanian time, I start as I finished last year - with a review!

The blissful thing about spending New Year's Eve on your own is that you can eat the food you like, drink how much or little you like, and ok, suffer the excruciality of dreadfulness of German TV offerings unless you have something better to do, watch the Lithuanian fireworks across the road from me - especially those aimed straight at my balcony....and then...

...and then....

you have a final flick across the channels, and what do you find? A New Year's Eve concert of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Caracas, Venezuela, broadcast by arte. I ask you, what more can anyone ask for?

As always, it was the huge band, though at first the wind groups played. The audience was a total family audience, including lots of children. The pieces were mostly South American, and big on rhythm and percussion. They included compositions by Piazzolla, Perez Prado, Arturo Marquez, Silvestre Revuelto and two young composers of Dudamel's age, who were also 'products of the sistema'.

One of these was the 'War of the[orchestral] Sections' by Felix Mendoz, which it seems they also performed at the London Proms. It was brilliant - so much fun! To not only use all instruments of the orchestra, but also voices, including a singing and dancing trumpet player, and anything to make a sound, written by someone so young - it's awesome! The Venezuelan audience do not hold back at moments like this, but dance happily along in their chairs. It must be so hard for this orchestra to perform in front of a stuffy European audience....

A bit of an interlude allowed the classical/folk violinist Alexis Cardenas and his group Trabuco on the stage for some improvisation. He is a stunning violinist, fully trained in the classical music, but likes to mix classical and Venezuelan folk music. It appears that he was at the Kaunas Jazz Festival in Lithuania last summer.....How good he is was shown in a concerto piece whose name I forget but I think it was by Sylvestre Revuelto (the programme will be repeated today at 11 am ....). This also included his group, and in the middle of it, an improvisation section not quite foreseen by Senor Revuelto, he suddenly fiddled down a whole movement of a Bach partita - so incredibly lightly and fluently - wow, what a violinist he is. Anyone who is a fan of Lakakos (you know who you are) should take an interest in Cardenas - unfortunately he has only brought out one CD so far, and that may be difficult to obtain.

At least two of the pieces they called were called 'Mambo'. A mambo, as far as I understand, having played a few in my time, is a refrain that is played again and again - and it's fun. The audience, who had been so quiet during the Bach that you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, was off at these - and when they played the Bernstein (from the West Side Story, it's probably their party piece) there was no holding back anyone.

If the rest of the year continues as it started, I'll be happy....

Incidentally, Ms Operachic, I passed through 'live from the Scala' earlier in the evening (New Year's Eve); what did those ladies in Swan Lake wear on their ears? They looked rather like ammonites. And what about those dancers? They had a good attack of gravity, no?