Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gershwin on a shoe string

George Gershwin's (maternal?) grandfather, it appears, is from Vilnius, though he left to live in St Petersburg and later then in the US. So it was entirely natural to have a concert of his music as the opening concert of the St Christopher orchestra's opening season, sponsored by the American centre (their cultural institute, though where was their cultural attache?)

But it was a concert on a shoestring budget. I don't like the way the St Christopher concerts are beginning to resemble the concert programmes of the early 19th century, with a bit of piano music, a bit of singing, a bit of chamber music and a bit of orchestral music. If I pay for a concert (and to be fair, I did not, since not having got round to buy a ticket before, I was waiting in a ticket queue and a nice member of the audience suddenly thrust a spare invitation into my hand) I like to have some consistency in the offerings.

But here we were, with Rokas and Sonata Zubovas playing the Rhapsody in Blue on one piano. Clearly the hall does not have space for the orchestra size needed for this event, and the cost might have been astronomical. But I wondered a lot about this arrangement. If two people are sitting side by side at the same piano, it must mean that the piano and orchestra lines are divided up into high and low parts (with two pianos the 'soloist' would have been easier to identify). I am sure, for example, that the piece involves at least one run of the finger from piano bottom note to the top note of the piano - but this could clearly not be done (I may have spotted half this run). So not a pleasing arrangement. They played it well, and seemed to have fun, but it lacked sparkle - it was beautiful in a Lithuanian sort of way but could have had more bite, and greater differences in tone colours.

This was followed by three pupils from the national M K Ciurlionis school, Austeja Juskaityte, Agne Keblyte, and Vilius Daskevicius playing three preludes for violin, harp (was this part really written for harp?) and cello. Juskaityte did well with producing an almost Gershwinian sound on her violin, Keblyte was a rock-solid harpist and Daskevicius also played nicely. But overall the sound was a bit thin, and I wonder how difficult it is for people of an eastern-European music tradition to produce an authentic American sound. Also, do people pay for tickets to hear school children, albeit talented ones, in an evening concert?

The two Zubovas finished off with a piano transcription of the Cuban overture. Again nice, but better in an orchestra, I think. I could imagine some trumpet solos here and there. Did not quite swing.

Would have liked to have told you about the second half of the concert, with the St Christopher orchestra and the two soloists Liora Griodnikaite and Jonas Sakalauskas singing popular Gershwin songs, but my toothache called for urgent action and I left. (Though I feel a bit bad going home for 'just a toothache' when I knew a guy who visited concerts in the terminal stages of cancer). Can't say that having a baby sitting immediately behind me (what were the parents thinking of?) exactly inspired me to stay either. I wish concert organisers were stricter about this.

Nice touch, though - the programme booklet included an announcement of the next concerts. Good marketing!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Cats and dogs....

These days I've been getting up early in the morning, what with heavy work in Georgia, and exam revision. And I still have my breakfast on the balcony, while everyone is asleep, including the two dogs in the kennel.

This morning spotted a nice tabby strolling through the garden. Dogs kept sleeping. The tabby wandered along to the stairs to my flat. I started talking to him, and he took a seat and listened. Dogs still asleep. Suddenly I was aware of a dog's head pointing in the cat's direction, for quite a while.... 'surely, I must be seeing things, is that a CAT in MY garden?'

It took interminable seconds for the dogs to explode out of their kennels, to which they are chained. The cat strolled off, grinning....


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ramon Vargas in Vilnius

The famous Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas will open this autumn's season in the opera house, singing various arias (2 October).

He will not be on stage alone. The Lithuanian singer Sygute Stonyte will support him.

Is she the best female singer we have in Vilnius? What about Liora Grodnikaite? Though Stonyte once did a sublime ending to an aria in Verdi's requiem.

I wonder what it is like for him touring world opera houses, and being paired with whoever can be wheeled out?

I will stop here....


Friday, September 12, 2008

Work, work, work

If you think I have a minute to think about writing about music, think again! Geeez, this time I am on a high-level project in Georgia (which seems to be doing quite well in re-building itself, in parts, anyway) and working from morning till night, and then revising for my music exam - I've barely got time to breathe! Haven't worked so hard for a long time! But there are compensations, like in the evenings taking a smoke on the balcony, and in between picking the biggest grapes.....

Can't really say anything about Georgia and how it is doing - it would conflict with my work and that would not really be right. I'm still an old stick-in-the-mud civil servant at heart who does not criticize that organisation who employs him (even if indirectly).


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Matters of Honor (sic)

'Matters of Honor' by Louis Begley is a wonderful book! Is it a 'bildungsroman'? Might be - I'm not that hot on types of novels.

It's about 3 fairly privileged young men who start college together in the 1950s (at Harvard), and follows their lives - throughout their lives. It's told from the viewpoint of Sam, the son of a couple with a drink problem who appear to be the black sheep of a very middle-class New England family. Henry, a Jew, survived the war in hiding in Poland, and Archie is the son of a US military officer and his wife who has grown up in Panama. They are put together in a student flat and from there their friendship begins.

The question occurs, though, who's 'bildung' is being told here? Is it Sam's, or is it Henry's? Archie remains somewhat peripheral, but Sam and Henry remain closely connected throughout their lives. Henry tries hard to throw off the yoke of Judaism - of course, as a young man with a Polish accent he is always asked how he survived the war, which he hates. His mother clings to him, and his parents want him to become a doctor - but he drops that course and studies classics instead., though later he develops into a direction which might have made his parents proud. Sam's life, on the other hand, proceeds fairly calmly, apart from a mishap or two, into the life of a successful writer.

What's so wonderful about this book? It is written so beautifully (probably better in English, I read it in German), and meanders along so calmly, even though some of the events described in the book are quite traumatic. It is interesting how much the men in this book (in which women are very marginal) talk about their feelings and experiences - most of it is about the emotional lives of the characters. And still the book is unputdownable. Very much worth reading.

(And now it looks like I am off to Georgia for an emergency assignment - and I have exams to pass, and and and....)


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Get me out of here!

Last night's concert by the 'New Ideas Chamber Orchestra' (NIKO, in Lithuanian) was something quite different. Starved of music, as I have been, I was interested to see what this new band would produce. Hmmmm. The audience consisted mainly of young people few of whom I knew. Which made me wonder what I had let myself in for! (In Lithuania it's mainly the young who go to avantgarde type concerts).

As the audience was filing in some of the performers appeared in different corners of the hall and started fiddling away. In my corner there was a young woman playing Bach; a bit further away another one was doing something virtuosic - but I could not hear her; there was a violist, and another violinist further away. Hmmm?

A young man and young woman appeared and leaned up against the stage. Turned out, eventually, that he was the conductor/composer(?) and she was the singer. Singer. Yes, well. The musicians sprinkled round the audience eventually disappeared and some reappeared on the stage, which by now featured a string quartet, with a guy playing various gongs at the front, the singer and the conductor/composer(?)/pianist.

The concert was called 'be dvieju bruksniu' ('without two lines/strokes' according to my dictionary). There was no programme. The website says that it was the composer Gediminas Gelgotas' 'musical mystery, a magical evening of musical improvizations', which 'at the same time on the scene shows some 20 young Lithuanian international competition winners as well as NIKO'. Maybe I should have read the blurb more carefully....but there were not 20 people involved, ever.

The first person left during the first piece, where it appeared that the singer was having sex with the microphone, accompanied by the gongs, and possibly the string quartet behind, but we could not hear them over the roar of the gongs. Since I sat in the front row I could neither count how many other people left, nor leave myself - there was a little door near me, but I realised just in time I would still have to cross the auditorium to actually get out. I was trying to think if there was a backdoor, and whether I would be able to climb out over the garden walls at the back of the building.....

Anyway, on it went. Another piece had the same little theme, a few bowed notes and then a 'plink' which was played by the whole string quartet, each member at different times and different pitches - I thought the first violinist did the most masterful 'plink' but the cellist and violist did not pick this up. A further piece had a slightly fugal start; Gelgotas played the piano for a bit, then a song involved the singer in whistling and squeaking - though it's clear that she is also quite capable of singing very high. The music was much the same throughout - I'd have to hear it more often to get the hang of it, but would I really want to?

I have to say that the performers played wonderfully. Particularly the cellist stood out with his warm tone, as did the oboist. It's strange that Gelgotas did not write any whistles or squeaks for any of the other instruments, only the singers - the oboe could have done that quite well, as could the string instruments, all of whom played just very normal bowed string music. But perhaps that would have added a level of complexity beyond his ken.

So it was quite interesting, short (thankfully), but not a great deal of fun.

Roll on Judas Maccabaeus on Sunday!