Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Put the frigging piano lid down!

...was my first reaction in tonight's concert of the Valstybinis Vilniaus Kvartetas (VVK - State Vilnius Quartet) with Edvinas Minkstimas on the piano.

I've got ambivalent feelings about the VVK which still rests its laurels on a 1972 Belgian prize, a generation on and after a 50% change in personnel. They've got a few Lithuanian prizes, too, in recent years, but anyone does who's around long enough. There have been some very, very iffy concerts in the past.

As usual, I thought, the first fiddle sounded weak and the cellist had his narcoleptic attacks, into which he collapses as soon as he has finished a phrase. Could hardly hear them over the piano in Saint-Saens' piano quintet op 14. But something happened! In the third movement the group suddenly got going and began to sound much better, stronger and far more effective. Something's happened to the first violinist - her bow arm is much stronger and straighter than it used to be for many previous years. That's interesting. In the second movement the pianist pearled some raindrops like hail on a tin roof - then realised it, clapped his hand to his mouth, and the remaining raindrops just drifted down. His repeat of the final movement's theme was so smooth, it was to die for.

In the Brahms quintet op 34 the balance was much better. For some reason I knew the third movement very well, but not the others. Again the second movement had some beautiful moments, and the power that went into the final two movements had to be seen to be believed. I would not have believed it, had I not been there. Suddenly the quartet was rejuvenated and almost overpowered the pianist.

At the beginning of the concert I was going to plead for personnel changes in the VVK, but if they can keep up the strength of the end of the concert - keep going, guys!


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fractional review

I used to review whole concerts, recently half concerts or performances, for a variety of reasons - today's review of a quarter concert is brought to you courtesy of a clash of appointments and Vilnius city council's traffic management - next time I'll take the bike.

So it was Stein Skjervold (baritone), Mindaugas Backus (cello) and Rokas Zubovas (piano) who at the end of their concert in the Tolerance Centre of the Jewish State Museum performed Lori Laitman's 'The seed of dreams', which followed Brahms' 'Vier ernste Gesaenge', Schumann's Fantasiestuecke and Victor Ullmann's 'Der Mensch und sein Tag'. I would have loved to have heard the Fantasiestuecke on the cello, for which they were written - have probably heard them more often on the viola, most recently in a slightly challenged transcription by Michael Kugel (unexpected drops of an octave where the strings were too short, sort of thing).

Caught the end of Ullmann's piece, which he had written in Terezin. It consists of twelve short verses; the end is very contemplative and - understandably - full of longing for death. The music has a flavour of Schoenbergian angst and anguish, and was performed beautifully by Skjervold and Zubovas.

Lori Laitmann's 'Seed of Dreams' was a very different kettle of (gefilte?) fish. I must admit that when a composer calls their site 'artsongs' it puts my back up. I would have thought that was for other people to decide whether someone's songs are art or not. And how, pray, would you define an 'art'song, as opposed to other songs? Well, all right then, it ain't punk, funk or blues.

I wonder what made her pick up these texts, by Abraham Sutzkever, a Vilnius ghetto survivor (now aged about 95). He wrote these in mostly during his time in the ghetto. It would have been nice to have had the words in the original language, whichever that might be - yiddish? As you would expect, the words are harrowing, about death, the transports, a dying child, and so on. The music is generally quite American. Rather oddly, one of the five songs starts with a slightly distorted habanera, and then sidles off into a yiddish song 'Unter dayne vayse shtern' which, it seems, needs to be shot through at a rate of knots (Senderovas gives this rather a better treatment in his Ghetto soundtrack). Another song had a rather cliched cello line echoing the voice.

But never mind. Stein Skjervold has a wonderful voice and beautiful clear diction, which really made a difference to these very wordy songs. Why does he not get on other stages in Vilnius - is it a closed shop? All three performers put this music together very well.

The encore was a Schubert song with piano and cello. Could not make out the announcement - something to do with 'Ruhe' - and cannot find it on the internet. Was it the way Schubert wrote it, or was it arranged for this occasion with the cello picking up a verse or two? Not sure. Strangely, here I thought we had a conflict between the German language, the 'Ruhe' (peace) and the potentially beautifully singing tones of the cello. The words were produced a bit glottally (like the German language) whereas they could have been more joined to each other in a way that a cello bow can turn without hearing the join. Hence the cello also had to sound glottal when its turn finally came. But it was a beautiful piece with which to end the concert.

A local composer afterwards said the nicest things to Skjervold, about the interesting concert programme, the emotion in the singing and the difficult theme they had picked. Since he had told me the same things before he went off to see the performers he was not just being polite. And boy, can he be scathing if he wants to be. Welldone!


Monday, April 28, 2008

Buona serra (2)

Ran the Vienna halfmarathon in 2.02.31 yesterday, to the strains of Rossini's 'Barber of Seville'. It's wonderful running music. Raced to the finishing line singing 'Buona Serra'. Will always remember that now!


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Every note in the right place, but soul??

Should one write critical reviews of children? Won’t that damage the sensitive souls for life?

Given the hugely commercial machinery of the Vienna Boys’ choir I believe this is justified. While of course they are some neighbour’s little boys primarily they are now a money-making outfit. In any case, what I am going to say is less about the boys and more about the less than inspirational choirmaster.

It was the opening concert of the Vienna City Marathon, at 29 Euros a pop. As well it was part of the sponsorship by the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) which I had not heard about before, but it seems to be a fine organisation. This explained the presence of many African-looking gentlemen in the audience who were not built like runners.

As was to be expected, the hour-long concert was a mixture of everything, ranging from Purcell’s ‘Sound the trumpet’ (bringing back loads of memories and huge emotions – my son tells me he performed it about a dozen times at school) to Franck’s ‘Panis Angelicus’, Frank Sinatra, and, inevitably, Viennese Waltzes.

Frankly, the performance was disappointing. Yes, the notes were all there, but the inspiration was not. It was as if a northern German Protestant pathologist had taken the notes apart and reassembled them, but lost the soul in the process. ‘Sound the trumpet’ sounded messy and lacked the clarity of English cathedral voices. ‘Panic Angelicus’ was raced through and the notes dropped as if they were hot potatoes. ‘Amazing Grace’ (yes, really…) was presented as an American invention and had a dreadful piano accompaniment. South American music, Sinatra, the waltzes, all of which should go with a swing (and that can even be done without the boys moving) – it was dead and dull.

I am sure the boys are extremely musical – but it needs to be allowed out, Mr Choirmaster.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Buona serra (sp?)

Last night at the Volksoper Stefan Mikisch performed an introduction to Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’. I know and love the piece, and don’t need an introduction, but will do almost anything to hear it.

Mikisch apparently is famous for his introductions to Wagner’s operas in Bayreuth, and people flock to them. Here the opera house was also almost sold out. But I really must take my hearing aid when someone talks from the stage….

Anyway, it was quite interesting. Whereas I had thought that Rossini was behind his times (what with the recitatives and his strong rhythms, kind of baroque wrapped in classical harmonies) Mikisch suggested he was ahead of his time in terms of writing catchy tunes, which people, even on hearing them for the first time, think they know. He even pointed out some similarities between Rossini and Verdi, and Rossini and Wagner in the use of harmonies (is Wagner spinning in his grave?).

When he was talking Mikisch seemed extraordinarily nervous – to such a degree that it set me on edge, too – his legs were going under the piano like the clappers – might have been easier for him to walk the talk.

The piano playing of the transcriptions was quite good, but only quite good. He played mostly the right notes, but did not always bring out the right parts, and it lacked emotion and fun. Far from setting the heather alight. I left at the interval. But at least it set me up for dealing with the Italians in the hotel left after my return, who I said a nice ‘buona serra’ to – and the tune is still in my head at 8 in the morning….


Friday, April 25, 2008

Funding problems at the Burgtheater

The Burgtheater in Vienna is a venerable, if not entirely to be venerated these days, institution in Vienna. Everyone who is anyone needs to be seen at this theatre. Next to it is the Café Landtmann, a similarly venerated institution, which, like the Burgtheater, has recently suffered lapses in taste (one with its theatrical productions, the other with its architectural extension). Café Landtmann, incidentally, is also the place where Sigmund Freud used to hang out – a park named after him is not far from there. I digress.

Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ is a new production. Like many non-English productions it uses the text very freely – in this case almost only as a skeleton. I’m not very familiar with this play, but the joins between the new bits and the original bits were so obvious that it was like being hit with a sledge hammer.

What makes me think the Burgtheater is short of cash? It’s the first theatre I have come across where you pay (albeit voluntarily) for a pee, and a woman looks after the two toilets, wiping them down after each customer. Are the Viennese so disgusting in their toilet habits that this needs to be done? (Ask Mr Freud). I hate having someone stand outside my door, waiting for me….

The inside of the auditorium is not only astonishingly plain, but it has seen better days. Someone should tell them that these days there are non-smelly paints that do not give people headaches – these should be applied freely, especially to the ceiling (it is also possible to rent scaffolding…).

The plainness was exarcerbated, in this case, by the stage set resembling a DDR asylum for the homeless dining room of ca 1975. Which shortly afterwards was peopled by the people belonging in this place. Again the shortness of cash showed seeing that most actors had several roles (though no doubt this was An Artistic Methodology).

The punters of the asylum talked pure Austrian apart from one guy who, I realised with a start, sounded like a Berliner. Homeless people migrate, too, I guess. So I did not understand what they talked about, mostly. But there was much talk about how the German ‘schlager’ (an particularly atrocious form of

popular music) was true, much mention of the unemployed and so on. In the interval I overheard that the ‘native’ actors might have been from the Volkstheater (folk theatre). The audience laughed at this, quite a lot, so I guess they liked being taken to the underbelly of society (it’s kind of safely exotic, you know).

And then there were the Shakespearean bits, where the language suddenly completely changed – and boy, these parts were so boooooring! The audience was restless in these, when they were not asleep (a guy a couple of rows behind me had three severe snoring spells, all coinciding with fairly quiet Shakespeare). Another guy, in the theatre on his own, checked his text messages and picked his nose and ears extensively during moments like this. Memo to him – when you are bored, people around you may be bored, too – and watch the audience rather than the stage.

I left at the interval – I was not the only one. Should have gone to the Musikverein to hear Daniel Mueller-Schott in the Dvorak cello concerto instead....


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Change in Lithuania

...just a small, fairly insignificant one. The most recent British Ambassador, Colin Roberts (photo from Lietuvos Rytas), is leaving his post, as they do every few years.

It's a shame that the support foreign countries give to culture (or anything else, I suspect), is so dependent on the personality and interests of the ambassador. Mr Roberts' successor was a great supporter of the arts, and especially music, in Lithuania, as have been the last three German ambassadors, a Spanish ambassador, the Armenian one (who, based in Warsaw, has a bit of a commute to get himself to the Filharmonija...), the Americans come and go. The British embassy (all of them) has been spectacular by their absence in this regard. Obviously the discovery of culture by the UK government ('every child shall have five hours of arts a week') has not percolated into every nook and cranny of her officials. That can be a shame as far as fairly culture interested intelligentsias as in Lithuania are concerned.

(The British Council, while not bad on the visual arts, appears to know nothing about music if it's not hip-hop so there's no great hope there. But BC, as an NGO, could not possibly be seen as representing HM Government anyway).

Let's see what happens next.


Mental block

Weird stuff. Last night I chopped my index finger along with the cabbage (which luckily was red already). Tiny cut but better covered with a small plaster (and can test this new brand of plaster for allergy while I'm at it). Did not hurt much yesterday, hardly hurts at all now.

So now I can't play the piano! I'm avoiding using that finger even though I don't need to. While in some places it now gives me access to the fingerings that my long-suffering teacher writes in my music, in others it's all sixes and sevens, and makes it much harder to play - just having that white plaster in front of my eyes.

Think I'll keep it on for tomorrow's lesson ....gives me an excuse.....


Monday, April 14, 2008

Upcoming in Vilnius

It's a sad day when a woman has to blog about concerts that she may not be able to go to, just to keep her adoring readership engaged.

I hope the flutenet's Vieri Bottazzini concert with Musica Humana went well yesterday. He teaches in Istanbul, but in the summer he will be coming to Juodkrante, in the Baltic Sea, to run a course on fluting - may all Vilnius flautists attend it, and get a sound!

On 26 April Ula Ulijona and Vilhelmas Cepinskas will be playing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. While Ms Ulijona is a fine violist, and Mr Cepinskas is a fine violinist when he puts his mind to it, I'm glad I'm missing this one - maybe I'll get through a year without this piece? Guys, the Stamitz family have written some nice Sinfconcs - one was performed, after recent recreation, at the Bratschistentag in Germany last year, and the other by Nobuko Imai and Philippe Graffin in Vilnius in about 2003. Go on, change the record! (I do love the Mozart Sinfconc, and when it pops up on my Ipod, it makes me feel all at home and warm inside, but really, I get to hear it every year - 3 times last year, I think).

On 29 April I will be home for a very interesting concert by Stein Skjervold, a Norwegian singer resident in Vilnius, with the delectable Rokas Zubovas on the piano and the ever reliable Mindaugas Backus on the cello. The concert, at 18.00 in the Tolerance Centre of the State Jewish Museum (at Naugarduko 10/2) will feature a range of very interesting music, including that of the (Jewish?) American composer Lori Laitman, Brahms, and Victor Ullmann's 'Der Mensch und sein Tag'. Ullmann was gassed in Auschwitz.

Not sure who has to practice more tolerance these days in Vilnius; going by the anti-semitic comments in the Lietuvos Rytas paper recently in relation with the Zaha Hadid award for the Ermitage/Guggenheim museum (presumably directed against Mr Guggenheim), and the events around the Uzgavenes 'carnival' where people dress up as Jews, amongst other 'nationalities' - which even, it would appear, the most educated Lithuanians (including those in the 'ethics' business) consider 'normal' and 'traditional', it is good that the Jewish population of Vilnius is tolerant.

But as Daniel Barenboim says, 'tolerance is not enough, you need respect'.


Lea's Bartok

Our own Toby Lea's Bartok at the Musikverein appears to have gone well, though Ann Lebaron in her blog do not focus on the soloist as much as she oughter have done. But she's a composer who hasn't written anything specially for viola.....

Reviews in Vienna seem to take their time to come through - the most recent review in the Wiener Zeitung is of a 10 April concert. Suppose those reviews have to cogitate, analyse and pick each word with great deliberation.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Letter to the Guardian

'Michael Greenwood (Letters, April 11) talks of "the abysmal quality of
British music since 1900". Perhaps he has not heard Elgar, Vaughan
Williams, Delius, Britten, Walton, Tippett, Lutyens, Maconchy,
Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, or Adès - and this is not a comprehensive
Bob Elmes
Frodsham, Cheshire'

To which I can only add - perhaps he has....

Though I haven't heard Lutyens (I think), Maconchy, Birtwhistle, or Adès, and I quite like Maxwell Davies and Tippett, plus Peter Grimes and Britten's 'Lachrymae'. As for the others....Hawd me back, as the Scots would say.


Friday, April 11, 2008

The spacecraft has landed!

This will be the new State Hermitage/Guggenheim museum in Vilnius. Don't ask me how they got a Russian museum and an American foundation to collaborate, but sometimes it happens...

The design is by the world famous Iraqi (omigod, it gets worse, Russian, American, Iraqi) architect Zaha Hadid. Generally I like her designs. It's certainly daring - and has no relation to Vilnius' old town, though not much of that particular location does.

Not entirely sure how exactly it will fit in, given that in that location, and missing in the picture, is also the 21 story Lietuva Reval hotel in front of it, the Central Shopping Centre even closer to us, a half-started museum on the right, Mother Lithuania with some doves beside it, a huge new sports palace further over to the right, and it's sitting right on my jogging track....Maybe they'll squeeze it in on the bit of land between the road and the river....as long as the river won't ever flood.

Awaiting it with interest. Wonder what the other two designs were like (by Libeskind, and Massimiliano Fuksas).


Last time it was fiddle cases, this time it is visas

See Jessica's blog about the story of Grigory Sokolov, a Russian pianist resident in Italy, who is having to go to Rome to get fingerprinted to get his visa for the UK. He's refusing to do so and has cancelled his concert tour.

We European citizens sometimes don't know how lucky we are, moving all around Europe and much of the rest of the world without great difficulty. Not only does he need a visa, but he also needs a work permit (for playing a few concerts? Do they have to prove that they cannot get a Brit who can do it just as well?). Mind you, the AIDS tests I used to have to do for my long-term Russia visas were also quite demanding, especially since Brits living in the UK did not have to do them (I lived in Lithuania at the time).

The last occasion that kept travelling musicians out of the UK was the farce around the fiddle cases, in another anti-terrorism move. But at least they could fly to Brussels or Paris and hop on a train...

Will this lead to another cultural meltdown, or will they be able again to somehow swing it? Imagine all those visiting orchestras with members of many nationalities.....the LSO's first violinist is a Serb....


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Music blog ratings

I see that Jessica's blog is the highest rated classical music blog (out of 44) on this site. Congratulations! There's also a blog which starts with 'Hi, I'm a mom of a kid who's studying violin' - that sort of language is normally enough to turn me right off (and vomit). But actually, it's fascinating, and the insights this mum has are amazing - especially on the expression of music!

This blog does not get a mention. I can live with that, given that Overgrown Path and Ionarts are not mentioned either. I suspect they are too intellectual, or they simply have not been nominated. Not that I'm saying my blog is anywhere near intellectual....it's probably too random, or it also has not been nominated....


Musical nepotism

I hate it! In Eastern Europe it's all around us - in Lithuania there are huge musical dynasties, the Dvarionas, the Ciurlionis, the Armonas, the Geniusas, the Domarkas, the Rinkevicius [trying hard, bringing out his daughters all the time] families (and that's in a small country)....but at some stage the talent runs out/dilutes (though musicians tend to marry musicians). Perhaps two of these families have young musicians of some promise....
People do not always realise this and children are under huge pressure to become musicians; I commented on that a bit here. In Russia I once heard an at least third generation offspring of the Kondrashin dynasty playing the cello very beautifully (first cellist of the Bolshoi), but he'd brought his flute playing sister along. She... played the flute.

The Georgian conductor Vakhtang Kakhidze is reported here to be returning to Israel with his daughter Anna who went to business school and now studies composition at the Tbilisi conservatoire. Naturally she will be soloist in the concert as a singer and player of the ...er... synthesizer (though she is described as a pianist; and why not, Geringas has been known to play an electronic cello in concert). It reminds me of Bashmet, who brings his daughter Ksenia along to concerts to play the piano. She's a lovely young lady, who ...plays the piano. All the right notes in the right places, totally and utterly reliable, especially as an accompanist - but does she play with soul, or passion?

The problem with music is that unlike the children of factory owners, who have their whole childhood to make a decision about their future, the children of musicians are caught up in the music business from the age of about 5, and before they know it, they are predestined to the same career. I congratulate every musician who allows his/her children to freely choose who they wish to be. And sometimes those children want to be like mum and dad....


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Jerusalem Quartet

I must have been one of the first Europeans to hear them as a group, that dark miserable September night in 2002 or a January night or so in 2003 at the Chopin Academy in Poland. A bunch of young lads, all trained in Jerusalem, all with Eastern European names (so what's new, you ask yourself?) and giving a very lively performance of whatever in front of a rather sparse audience. I wonder if there has been a personnel change - I remember a rather large violist, and I think if he had been called 'Grosz' then I would have remembered that little fact. At the time, high season for suicide bombers, I wondered what it would be like studying music in Israel.

It seems they have won a BBC Music Magazine award for their recording of Shosty's string quartets 6, 8, and 11. They've been increasingly high profile in recent years, and it seems, deservedly so. Well done the lads!

For those interested in conservatoires, bearing a mind that 6 years is a long time in Eastern Europe, the Chopin Conservatoire in Warsaw is in a 1950s or 60's utilitarian Soviet concrete building with lots of brown wood inside. I think you had to pay for the tickets, as you do in Tbilisi. (In Vilnius that would not work, given the noise from the car alarms of the professors' cars which go off regularly during concerts). Nothing special about it apart from a rather large sheet music shop which seemed to be doing lots of business, also with lots of old editions (not antique, just old) of pieces of music. It was quite a favoured concert spot. Another time I heard the Royal Quartet of Poland, also a group of young people, and also coming favourably to the attention of international audiences. Polish audiences were always sparse in these concerts, though.

Photo from Ionarts.


New meaning for 'car bumper'

This article in today's Guardian describes a new type of musical instrument - scrap cars. Sounds like a great idea - the cars are being scrapped anyway, so why not have some fun with them. (The carbon footprint involved in getting the cars to the concert hall, and disposing of them afterwards, is another question).

A German with the history-laden name of Christian von Richthoven and his partners will put on a series of concerts at the London Riverside Studios until 4 May, destroying a car in each show. They got the idea when involved with some teenage vandals; instead the team invited them to their lessons and then let them destroy a car in a musical way, with Bach, Tchaikovsky and Motörhead.

Seems that not everyone shares this sense of humour. They performed at the Leipzig motor show exhibiting lovely shiny new cars - afterwards the guy who booked them was sacked on the spot....


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Renate Lasker-Harprecht

The name Lasker immediately range a
bell, when I was reading an article about this lady and her husband
in the German magazine 'Brigitte Woman'. But I always think of
someone called 'Lasker-Schueler' whoever that was (internet down,
can't check).

Turns out she is the sister of Anita
Lasker Wallfisch, mother of Rafael Wallfisch, the cellist (who will
shortly give a concert in Berlin celebrating the birth of the state
of Israel; had commented on that before). Renate and Anita were
together doing forced labour in Germany during the war (what with
being Jewish, do I need to spell it out?), and then landing in
Auschwitz and later in Bergen-Belsen – where Anita saved both their
lives playing the cello in the camp orchestra. This is described in
her book which she presented at the Dartington Summer School last
year. I did not go, having heard quite enough of this in my lifetime,
but I hear it was very moving. As it should be.

Having moved to the UK after the war,
Renate Lasker married a German, Klaus Harprecht, somewhat to her
sisters' horror, I suspect, and now lives in the south of France,
where she is a French citizen. He worked with Willy Brandt during
the difficult years of 1973/74.