Sunday, October 26, 2008

A big band

So I had not been bothered to go shopping. What to cook tonight? I pulled a piece of fish out of the freezer, but then what to do with it? I do a mean fish curry, but eat curries quite a lot - and for fried fish I did not have potatoes to accompany it. Finally found a recipe for Japanese fishballs - it was only half-way through preparing them that I found I did not have many key ingredients for that either, like minced pork, a potato and something else.....but I can improvise....As I sat down to eat, found to my horror that it was less than half an hour to the start of the concert! A time at which I usually leave for the Filharmonija. Then someone phoned me in the middle of my meal....

Was contemplating not to go, since I still had to buy a ticket. Bet the concert involved Peter Eötvös, whose work I have heard much about - he has a huge reputation. Also the Ensemble Modern from Germany, a fraction of which I had come across in Tbilisi about a year ago.  So off I sprinted with 19 minutes to go, and got there in plenty of time. The hall was about half full (many, many foreigners) - the stage was very full. Of instruments. It made me contemplate the difficulties of being a contemporary musician - this group came with a load of instruments which would have put a pop group to shame. Most of it percussion.

The evening began with Michel van der Aa's 'Mask'. A fairly quiet, contemplative piece, though it also involved much rapid playing, in snatches. The bass, which opened that piece, at one stage hit a very virtuosic moment. The percussionist was the quietest percussionist I ever heard. One of her instruments was a table on which were stuck a number of stretches of tape - which she proceeded to rip off, as a sound effect - though sometimes that was almost inaudible. The audience in the hall might not have noticed at all (I now always buy standing room tickets, and always get a seat at the front of the balcony, straight above the stage). She also played some tiny cymbals with a bow, but again that was almost not heard.

The next piece, Peter McNamara's 'Landscape of diffracted colours' (I think, the programme on the website mentions one Chong Kee Yong, but the composer did not look like one) opened like the Beethoven violin concerto (though the timp was replaced by a bass drum), had a snatch or two sounding like 'Vlatava', some beautiful romantic piano playing and some stunning oboe playing between the usual snatches of contemporary music. As if some virtuosos had gone missing in the depth of the Aussie bush (the composer is Aussie), or were contemplating a sunset there. The piece lasted 8 minutes 13 seconds - I know that because behind the conductor's music stand was a computer screen showing the timing - critical given that there was an electronic input. Though how difficult must it be to stick exactly to that time? Film conductors are probably used to it - but a future musicologist could not compare performances eg by the duration of it, as they often do these days, eg in the case of Roger Norrington (the fastest Beethoven conductor in the West) and others.

The first half ended with Eötvös' 'Octet plus'. The octet consisted of a flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones - the latter four using many mutes. The way the mutes were inserted, especially the long slim ones into the trombones, made me think of sex.  In addition there was a singer, who sang some of the time, or hissed or made other noises. Those few words that I picked up 'everywhere', 'always', 'forever' sounded rather banal - more suited to pop music than serious classical music. The instruments played generally in groups of two, with no soloistic interludes. It was interesting, though I would need to hear it again a few times.

None of the pieces did much for the emotions; they were all very interesting, and also very intellectual - but then I suppose these days pop music has taken over the responsibility for emotions. Ah well.

Eötvös was the conductor of the evening - he looks like a comfortable smart German academic, and the way he conducts makes me think he would make a good accountant or neurosurgeon. The most precise conductor I have seen for a long time - but it's probably needed for this music. 

Coming to the end of the first half, I suddenly began to wonder if I had turned off my cooker under the second batch of fishballs I had been preparing. My mind was fully on the concert job, obviously! So I had to leave - and it was good that I did, only finding some charred remains in the pan...


Starting with a bang!

(Late addendum; it seems the programme published on the website had the pieces in a different order in which they were played; I wish they would not do that, especially when we (probably) have to pay to get a programme...order is now corrected in the review; see comment).

This year's Gaida festival of contemporary music is combined with the World Music Days, a festival of contemporary music that takes place in a different country every year. Why it is in in Vilnius the year before the European Capital of Culture year, God knows. Next year it will take place in Sweden; in Goeteborg, Vaexjoe in middle Sweden and on Gotland.

It means non-stop contemporary music for the next fortnight. Bit of a mixed blessing, but useful for those of us who try to study music. Last night's concert at the Filharmonija involved a very large version of that National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the senior Juozas Domarkas, with Petras Geniusas as the soloist. And a very interesting programme it was, too!

Yuasa Joji's 'Cosmos Haptic V' was wonderful! It was the one that started with the bang, and involved much complicated percussion throughout the piece, magnificently played by one of the band's percussionists. In some ways it reminded my of the sea interludes from 'Peter Grimes' - there was a theme in the middle which seemed very similar to a motif that appears in that opera. The piece came and went, and told a story - it was really great, and began the evening's trend towards massive applause for the composers.

The next piece was one that did not come and go, and did not tell a story. Ligeti's 'Atmospheres' (am I beginning to detect a cosmic theme?) was simply a soundscape; it was strange, because it had a huge and very busy looking score, but for the entire duration nothing much happened. Apparently it had been worked on by Vytautas Jurgutis, but not knowing the original I cannot say what he did. Now that I know about these things I can just be with the music, rather than expecting changes. It was ok, but perhaps nothing to leave the home for - though you could imagine it working quite well as the background to a nature film (eg a long film watching clouds passing slowly over alpine peaks - a sunrise would be too exciting, or if you needed one of those calmness and relaxation moments).

Oscar Carmona's 'En dehors II' was a more lively piece, with much complicated playing - with an electronic part which was essentially like a thunderstorm. Was this the piece where a flautist rushed from the piccolo to the alto flute? Reminded me a bit of Holst's 'Planets', but of course only a tiny bit.

Finally we had John Adams' 'Century Rolls' piano concerto. The audience reaction afterwards was interesting; many people liked it, others dismissed it as 'entertainment music'. Well, folks, that's the nature of American music. I wonder what Adorno would have made of it. It was kind of a mixture of minimalism and jazz (and blues??) progressions, with the first movement firmly centred on f-sharp. No, I have not suddenly got perfect pitch - I was sitting above the pianist, and could see his fingers stuck around that note. The first movement was also extremely tricky rhythmically for the orchestra, but they hung in well - though at the end the first violins petered out a little (partly intentionally, but not entirely). The other movements were fairly conventional, one slow, one fast with much frantic playing, and the pianist having the rhythms driven into his shoulders. I found it very interesting, musicologically speaking and am glad I had the chance to hear it. John Adams is one of the key composers in the US these days, ever since his opera 'The Death of Klinghoffer' - how many readers remember this event? Two words 'Achille Lauro'....

At the reception afterwards some chap from the American embassy did a most impressive speech in Lithuanian, reading from a script, but pronouncing very nicely.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!

If you are in Tbilisi, go, rush, run to the Opera and Ballet theatre to see Jiri Kilian's ballets. And make sure you stay right to the end! You will not regret it!

Last night the premiere took place of 'Jiri Kilian's Ballets'. Jiri Kilian was of course the inspired leader of the Nederlands Dans Teater - his productions were always wonderful. Last night's performance combined two of his choreographies, 'Stepping Stones' and 'Sechs Taenze' with two other choreographies performed earlier this year and reviewed here (the piece with the pianist and the violinist, and 'Georges Bizet'). Otherwise the evening would have been quite short, but there was a bit of a difference between the quality of these two and those by Kilian. Still it's worth going.

'Stepping Stones' interested me not least because it is set to John Cage's music for prepared piano (and a bit of Webern). Both of which I studied recently, though I don't think I heard any of the prepared piano pieces. The piano was prepared by inserting things between the strings here and there, to get a different sound. Actually, it was the reaction to being unable to get a percussionist when Cage wrote it. But it's very effective - and here it was played on tape. The choreography was awesome - Kilian puts so much detail into it, tiny sideways movements which one almost does not notice, incredible composite movements and positions by two or more dancers - and the dancing was great. There were still problems with synchronicity; but in modern dance it is not always clear whether they should move at the same time or whether they should be a beat apart; this could perhaps have been clearer in this performance.

The final piece, six (short) dances to music by Mozart, was brilliant. A total comedy! Women in white dresses, the guys in white knickerbockers with white, very powdered wigs, did a series of exuberant boy/girl love trouble comedy routines à la 'Amadeus' (the film), very much making fun of themselves - absolutely no 'beautiful dancing', but hilarious! Don't miss it!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Flipping heck!

My friend here in Tbilisi was muttering something about 'some Czech Ballet company' coming to Vilnius this weekend. Just had a look at the programme.

She got it slightly wrong. In fact it's choreography by the wonderful Jiri Kilian with music by John Cage (prepared piano stuff) and Webern, both of whose music I have studied recently plus some Mozart.  The dancers are Georgian, and there are some great dancers about.

I'm going! Will I be able to get a ticket???



This is a wonderful book by the black Scottish (lesbian?) adopted writer Jackie Kay, who grew up just over the water from us (Dunoon way?). I would not normally go into someone's private affairs this much, but the book is about a black Scottish transsexual trumpeter, who gets married and adopts a son - some parallels there....As it happens, the trumpeter, Joss Moody, comes from Greenock, where another black Scottish guy I know was born...(port city, you know).

Joss Moody does not get much of a speaking part in this book, given that he is dead and only lives on in people's memories. The thing is that it is only when he dies that most people find out that in fact Joss Moody was a woman. The doctor who comes to sign the death certificate (Moody hated doctors and hospitals, so died at home) finds some bandages around his chest, and under them discovers some perfectly formed breasts - then she looks down his body....; the undertaker, the lovely Bangladeshi registrar, the guy's son, all find out something new about Joss. Then it hits the media and his wife flees the marital home to a wee cottage in Scotland.

The story is lovingly told in a series of little vignettes, from different points of view - and paints extremely sympathetic pictures of all who are involved in dealing with this situation. Even the son, who initially agrees with a tabloid journalist in 'telling it how it was' (how can he, seeing he thought his father was a man) and who at first comes across a bit as an arse (though he perhaps has reason to be angry), eventually becomes quite likeable. The author's descriptions of Moody's trumpet playing are awesome - I wish I could write reviews like this!

There are some logic gaps, though - how could Moody get married as a man? Even in 1955 I am sure they would have needed his birth certificate (Josephine Moore). His mother, who is finally tracked down by her grandson, lives in a sheltered housing scheme in Greenock called 'Larch Grove'. In Scotland, in public housing a name like that? I don't think so - 'Rankin Court' or something like that would have been more appropriate.  It never becomes clear what caused Moody to live as a man - childhood photos show him in a dress (but he was born in 1927, different times, different place).

The first page of the book was a bit hard, a bit irrational - but it was the widow's first days of widowhood, while the media were camped outside her house - this reflected her despair. But I am glad I persevered; it really is a wonderful, wonderful book - especially also with the references to places in Scotland I know and love! Must look out for more books by this author!


Monday, October 13, 2008

The Lithuanian Chamber orchestra (almost) at its best!

Apart from the programming soup (neither the programme nor the pre-concert announcement matched the order in which the pieces were played) and the conductor's, Georg Mais, wardrobe malfunction (luggage went missing? Black open-necked shirt, street shoes needing a clean, dark blue [or black? - I find it hard to tell those colours apart] lounge suit, or possibly different jacket and trousers) it was a great concert for the chamber orchestra last night.

Starting with Schubert's 8th overture (which according to the programme should have been Smetana's Quartet No 1, but actually, the sound of Smetana is unmistakable) this had some strange divisions in the violas - sometimes the leader had a solo, sometimes the lone guy in the second row - could not work that one out.  It went well, as did the Mendelssohn 8th string symphony which followed it, in which the violas also had major solo spots. Alas, whisper it, these were a bit lacklustre - I hate to say it - the notes were right, but they were just played, without much emotion. The first violins were at their very best, with lots of zip and zest and energy - this was great.

Nurit Stark joined the orchestra for Schubert's Rondo in A major for violin and strings; this is a lovely piece and she and the orchestra were having a lot of fun with it. I did not care that much for her use of the open e-string just after the beginning, and somewhere else - not sure if that is entirely Schubertian, or was she trying to be historically correct? Our view of what is Schubertian is probably formed by lots of romantic performances....There were a few glitches in terms of attack, but it was a lovely performance. For an encore she played a Mobile by (?) Kuzmin (?), a modern piece involving lots of fast runs up and down the violin, but in two voices, running in parallel or towards each other, with a hair-raising set of runs in harmonics at the end. Amazing stuff!

Finally we had Smetana's quartet 'From my Homeland'. A familiar, and beautiful piece (research topic - nationalism in music). Again the violas had a major input, and again it lacked bite, particularly in the second movement motif which could have been more aggressive. The other instruments, picking it up, did better at it (though at one moment the cellos sounded too beautiful). But overall it was again an energetic and very lively performance. Well-done the chamber orchestra.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

How would Rakhmaninov have played it?

Last night's concert at the Filharmonija featured Rakhmaninov's third piano concerto and Shosty's 8th symphony (the latter I missed due to a birthday dinner - not mine).

It was preceded by a Filharmonija club meeting. The club is a group of Filharmonija aficionados who get a talk and a wee glass of wine before the concert, and drinks with the artists after the concert. For a price. For which you do not get reduced price tickets to the concerts.

Anyway, the meeting started with a bit of Gershwin music played by Povilas Jaraminas, showing the photos of the most recent club picnic, which I would have loved to have been at, but  had to rush off to Georgia that day.  Looked like it had been fun. This was followed by the talented Agne Keblyte, aged about 14 (?), naturally with long blonde hair like all harpists, playing a romantic theme and variation on the harp, and very well, too; totally in control, with nice dynamic contrasts, clear identification of melody lines and so on.

Finally the conductor, Christian Knapp (who seemed to speak fluent Russian) and the pianist, Vadim Rudenko, appeared for the ritual interview. Alas, and unfortunately like many Filharmonija interviews in this scenario, it was a total 'Dame Edna' interview. The interviewer talked and talked, perhaps very amusingly, showing off knowledge and information - but the interviewees barely got a word in edgeways. Not the way one should interview people.

The piano concerto, a thoroughly romantic piece, was a fitting beginning for this year's season of the National Symphony Orchestra. Rudenko played in a very relaxed way, but also totally in control; the conductor and orchestra responded well to his rubatos; the ending brought the house down. I was wondering if the tempo of the slow movement was slow enough - there seemed little difference to the first movement.I also felt sorry for the trumpets and trombones, who got to play a little in the final bars of the piece, but otherwise were just sitting around.  I also wondered how Rakhmaninov would have played it - this year I have listened to some of his recordings, which are early-20th century, with very free treatments of rhythms, arpeggiated chords etc. But if anyone now plays a piece like that, even Rakhmaninov's own, they would be laughed out of the hall. Makes you wonder what sound Rakhmaninov had in his head when he wrote his music.


Saturday, October 11, 2008


No, this is not a personal story...sadly...it was the theme of last night's concert in the packed Grand Hall of the Music Academy (which is not used to having a packed hall, mostly), consisting of French and Italian love cantatas plus some harpsichord interludes. As befits the Banchetto musicale festival, part of which this concert was, it was all performed on original instruments (or modern copies thereof), including a harpsichord, viola da gamba or cello, a theorbo, and baroque oboe, plus a young soprano singer, Agnes Alibert from France (definitely not a copy of an old instrument - would they have used a woman or a castrato singer in France at the time? In Italy they would have used a castrato....).

At this stage you might be looking for an analysis of the differences between French and Italian baroque music (which exist). I could also be saying something about appoggiaturas in singing and cadence points. Well, you ain't going to get that; I was too far away from the action, and there were many and continuing distractions around me during the concert. (The harpsichordist, Imbi Tarum, will remember trying to get the audience to quieten down every time she played a solo.) Also I had lent my programme to some young boys and did not get it back. (One must encourage the young 'uns!)

I know these pieces need a harpsichord, but neither the harpsichord nor the theorbo were particularly audible when the gamba/cello and oboe were playing.  The theorbo seemed particularly pointless, though it was nice to look at.

Generally the performances went very well, and reflected clearly the joy and the pain of love. The singer smiled non-stop and expressed the songs beautifully, though there were the (very) occasional intonation problems and the playing style was appropriately 'historically informed'. Could not understand the words at the back of the hall, and it took to the end of the French part of the programme to clearly identify the singing language....I wondered whether the oboist had at one stage mechanical problems with his instrument; it sounded a bit blocked. Also it sounded flat to my ears, but that's probably because the tuning would be more like a=415 rather than the higher modern tuning. The difference in sound between an old-style oboe and a modern one was quite noticeable.  I think our Robertas Beinaris could have played the oboe with more character, more singingly.

The harpsichord did come through loud and clear during the two harpsichord only interludes, some pieces by Rameau in the first half and Scarlatti's version of La Folia in the second half. All pieces were dripping with ornamentation, trills all over the place.....I always think that the theme of La Folia is too short, and that it goes into the variations too fast, but there we are. Scarlatti's variations, using two manuals (did they have those in Italy at the time?) were very virtuosic indeed.


Friday, October 10, 2008

What happened?

Strange St Christopher's Orchestra concert last night. Usually the band bounces with energy, but last night it was somewhat listless, almost uninspired. 

It was the closing concert of the Latin American culture days, though only one of the pieces performed was written by a Latin American (Villa-Lobos), with the other pieces by Spanish composers. All, although 20th century music, were relatively conventional pieces - not a 12-tone between them.

Starting with the Bachianas Brazilieros (no 9), a pure string piece, and a wonderful solo by the viola section. This was a very sentimental piece, without many of the rhythms associated with music of that continent. They played nicely, but lacked zing. Turina's 'Torero malda' ('malda' is a Lithuanian word, not in my dictionary) ditto.

Then we had Rodrigo's 'Concierto Andaluz' for 4 guitars and orchestra, with the Baltic guitar quartet (which recently gave masterclasses in Iserlohn, Germany) as the soloists. It went better, though I thought some of the orchestra was particularly hesitant in the accompaniment (first violins). Did the trumpet sound flat? The quartet played well, and I have rarely heard a descending scale played with as much feeling as in the second movement of this piece. I kept looking for the little footrests that guitarists use, but I see they had the guitar equivalent of a violinist's shoulder rest screwed onto their instruments (a leg rest?) - a heavy-duty metal affair - do guitars tolerate this interference with their body more than violins? Here the guitars were amplified which was an improvement on the previous evening's unamplified baroque guitars.

The final piece was De Falla's 'Nights in the gardens of Spain', with the delightful Vadym Cholodenko as soloist (his third concert in Vilnius in three months). He played wonderfully, and the orchestra followed him obediently. I was not convinced of the piano line in the composition - much of it,with lots of right-hand playing only, sounded as if it should be played on guitar, but it seems it really was written for piano.

The amount of applause matched my conviction about this concert. Apparently it was being recorded - for commercial release? I would be very interested to read reviews of this recording. Bit of a shame, really - the orchestra can do so much better.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Flamenco and Co

Last night's concert was sold as 'Flamenco and 16th/17th century Spanish music'. The little word 'and' was the one I overlooked, and perhaps others, too, in the packed St Catherine's church. (I now need to rethink my entire review....)

The United Continuo Ensemble of Germany performed this Fiesta Española, together with Mercedes Hernandez (soprano), and the singer, dancer, castanette player Elva La Guardia. The instruments consisted of two baroque guitars, sometimes replaced by modern acoustic ones, a viola da gamba, and various pieces of percussion. The music ranged in fact from the 15th century to the 20th or 21st (the latter having more of a flamenco flavour).

This then explains why there was a soprano singer, Mercedes Hernandez. I was confused because her voice did not fit flamenco; it was too high and had constant vibrato... which means that I am not sure that it fitted the old non-flamenco music much either. She did have an amazing pianissimo, however, and sang well. Some of the songs sounded just like Dowland lute songs, except that most pieces also had a percussion accompaniment.

The pianissimo was very useful, given that it was really hard to hear the baroque instruments (in the 11th row where I was sitting). It's evidence, I suppose, that at the time these pieces were written concerts took place in more intimate surroundings where you could actually hear them.  The gamba had a rather dull part, mostly, often only following the singer's line, or providing a continuo background - there was one quite virtuosic piece, but the playing was so fast, and the string response rather slow, that it was not really possible to pick up the intricacy of the music - you just saw the player working very hard.

Elva La Guardia, on the other hand, was brilliant - sang with the right flamenco voice, gave commentaries which I could not hear, and danced, with or without castanets, sounding like pistol shots, actually more like machine gun fire.

The audience was there for the flamenco, as was I, and the applause reflected that very clearly.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mrs Bach?

Interesting article here on a theory that Mrs Bach (Anna Magdalena of that ilk) may have composed some of Johann Sebastian's pieces.

She was well-known as his copyist, but the Australian conductor and academic Martin Jarvis thinks she may have a lot of his pieces, including his cello suites.



Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Being blasé...

...is not always a good thing (is it ever?).

I wandered into my music exam today (my 21st OU exam), armed with my favourite fountain pen and as always a couple of emergency pens. Was a bit annoyed at how finely the British Council cut the time - the invigilator and papers arrived only 5 minutes before the exam (there's a lot of administration to be completed), and then, a few seconds before the exam started, she started reading out (in a very thick accent) the exam rules, which people do not usually do. I was watching the clock and not listening, and a minute after the exam should have started, I stopped her reading....

....only to find out half way through the third question out of 4, that writing in green ink, as I was doing, was not really the done thing (we should only write in black and blue). Apparently she had read that out....Keep fingers crossed! It may have something to do with duplication of our answers.

Then, at the end, I left with the question paper in my hand (which I also should not have done), but realised that in time to return it to the Council.

Hmmm. Not sure if I will manage a distinction in this course; by the end of writing (I could still, this minute be writing) I had just had enough; they were boring questions and all - though at least I did not have to use the music manuscript paper which I had been appalled to see at the beginning; cannot imagine what that might have been for. But last year I also finished about 40 minutes earlier and got a distinction. Watch this space.



Picked up this book by Marcelo Figueras I don't know where. Munich? It's in German, but an English translation exists, too - at a price. Of course it should be available in Spanish.  It's wonderful!

I should have twigged that a book by a guy with a Spanish name, apparently about a remote Siberian region, is not what I might have expected. In fact, it's about Figueras' childhood, in Argentina, during the period of the military coup (1976).

Figueras' parents, a lawyer defending many human rights cases and a university scientist, are, effectively, dissidents and as the military coup approaches, life becomes more and more difficult for them. They and their family have to leave Buenos Aires in a hurry and hide in a cottage at the edge of the city, also changing their identities. The story is told from the viewpoint of 10-year-old Marcelo, who sort of understands, but not entirely. His little brother, known as 'the dwarf', who likes very strict routines, understands even less. After a while normality sets in, Marcelo joins the religious village school (before which he has to cram religion, given that that was never a topic in his family's life). An older boy, Lucas, appears and lives with the family - it seems that he may be part of an underground movement.  The parents eventually return to work, though after a while the mother is sacked.

Figueras describes beautifully the changed situation, as the young boy grasps it - which includes mysterious phonecalls, sometimes having to flee again, relationships with his grandparents, his friends and his brother.  The parents seem to be wonderful, very loving and very engaged in making sure that the children are all right. They drive what sounds like a lime-green 2CV (aaaah, those were the days) - something which perhaps the average lawyer's family might just laugh at.  The mother (the 'Rock') appears to have a talent for everything except housekeeping and especially cooking, the father engages much with his son despite presumably having many troubles of his own. 

In between Figueras drifts through considerations of the history of the earth, astronomy, religion, Houdini (he finds a book on Houdini and tries to emulate him) and other topics. Sometimes these hold up the story line a bit, but perhaps, from his point of view at the time, not much else was happening within the family.  Much of the story focuses on the inner life of this little boy who is quite happy to share it, and discuss it, with his parents and his big friend Lucas.

The book ends not entirely conclusively, rather obliquely in fact - the future of his parents is not entirely clear. (Or perhaps only too clear?).  An afterword would have been nice.

I found it really interesting to read about a country and a period I know very little about. It's also very funny. What has it got to do with Kamchatka? You'll need to read it to find out!


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Something funny about baroque trumpet concertos?

Last night saw the opening of the winter season at the Filharmonija - at last! Unusually it was the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra who opened the season, rather than the National Symphony Orchestra. Unusually, too, the hall was packed and furthermore unusually, the soloist was a trumpeter, Andrei Kavalinski from Belgium(?), playing at least 2, if not three different sizes of trumpet. Usually the soloists tend to be string players or pianists.  Nicholas Cleobury from the UK conducted - can't say I had heard of him before.

The programme covered baroque, classical and romantic music, with Albinoni's trumpet sonata in C major and Torelli's (well-known) trumpet concerto in D major at the baroque end. I'm not that keen on baroque sonatas, given that they have two slow (and often not very interesting movements), and start slowly. But here we were, and the sonata's first movement ended almost before it had begun.  In both pieces the trumpet did not play during the slow movements!  I wondered about this, and whether it had something to do with the trumpet technology at the time the pieces were written. At that time trumpets did not have valves, and could not easily do chromatic stuff - which might have been necessary to add ornamentations to a line which might not have been very interesting without them.  The fast movements were fine, though I thought the phrasing was a bit gappy in the Torelli; it could have been more joined-up.  The final trumpet piece, a 19th century concerto by Amilcare Ponchielli had been written for trumpet and wind (brass?) band, and was arranged for trumpet and strings instead. Musically, it was icecream music; fairly cheesy stuff for the accompanying strings. Not convinced that the transcription was entirely successful, either. Reminded me of Paganini's 'Sonata per la Gran Viola' for viola and strings, where the accompanying band just adds background to the soloist going crazy. This Kavalinski did, with gusto - it was clear that this kind of stuff was more his comfort zone - it was brilliant.

The other two pieces in the programme were a Haydn symphony (43) and a Mozart symphony (29), interspersing the trumpet pieces. It's odd to hear symphonies in the middle of solos! The Haydn was ok; the ensemble was slightly ragged at times, and there were quite a few moments where there should have been a general pause - tension building and building - but they played almost straight on. This may also have been the fault of the audience who, during the first half of the concert, applauded rather too often. Someone commented to me on that during the interval, but on the other hand they come and pay, and they will learn. And they had learnt by the second half of the concert.

The Mozart, on the other hand, got a blistering performance by the orchestra. Taken at breakneck speed, even the slower second movement, it was edge of seats stuff - and the orchestra coped well. Cleobury seems like a nice and energetic guy, full of smiles. Does not do this orchestra any harm.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

'Incessantly my poor heart laments'

This was the parody mass by by the 'Franco-Flemish' composer Pierre de la Rue (1452 - 1518) performed today in the freezing Franciscan church by the German a capella group 'Amarcord' from Leipzig. (A 'parody mass' is a mass that is based on material, at times by other composers. I ask myself then if Berio's piece using a movement from Mahler's second (?) symphony could be described as a parody piece?).

Not having checked this out properly, my heart sank a little when I saw only the music stands for singers. But there we are. I was also surprised that the movements of this mass were interspersed by pieces from the Moosburg Gradual (1360), but the reason for this soon became clear.

The mass consisted of highly complex and polyphonic, imitative and very melismatic music - I can see why my music course states that music became simpler towards the 16th century. In music of this period performance directions like dynamics or
rallentandos don't really exist, so the notes themselves just had to be
interesting.  Sometimes I felt that de la Rue had put in a change in harmony as an afterthought, when suddenly on the last note a harmony changed. 

The gradual pieces were unison plainchants and/or antiphons. Had just one programme half been composed of these, it would have been rather boring  (they will forever remind me of the description as 'moaning monks' by Wendy Craig in 'Butterflies' about 25 years ago). This way the total stylistic difference between the pieces made an varied afternoon's concert.  I was impressed that the group of 5 men managed to sing in unison, given that the total of their vocal compasses ranged very wide (though one was effectively a countertenor, who could also sing a normal tenor voice).   It was interesting that in the mass both the Gloria and the Credo started with a solo singer stating the main theme ('Gloria in excelsis', 'credo in unum deum'). It reminded me of something - maybe some English church singing, or a later mass by another composer?

The singers sang beautifully, though I felt that entries were at times a little ragged; also the diction could have been better - consonants were a bit thin at times making it difficult to understand the words; I believe the Sanctus starts with an 's' and the 'excelsis' ends with an 's'. I felt sorry for the singers who were not half as warmly dressed as I and must have been chilled to the bone. But it was a very interesting programme, and something else to add to my exam preparation. It was nice to see, too, that the church was pretty full (85%) for a Saturday afternoon, and not many people left during the interval.

NB - the concert was free - who paid for it?


Am Ende kommen die Touristen

After a small debate with one of my readers about the deluge of holocaust literature, last night I found myself watching a German film set ... in Auschwitz.

It's a strange little film which does not seem to be going anywhere, much like the main character, Sven. Sven is a young German who is sent to carry out his civil service (alternative to military service) working in the Auschwitz youth hostel and museum.  It's quite common for young men to go abroad to do this - in an obscure corner of Russia I once met a couple of such guys working with children with disabilities.  More normally they work in German hospitals and social institutions, which without this low-cost workforce would probably face much more severe financial problems than they do already.

Sven's job, frankly, is that of a gofer. He is assigned to look after an old man, Kchimsky (in his mid-eighties) who is a camp survivor and whose job it is to maintain and restore the suitcases that were left by the Auschwitz victims on the way to the gas chambers. Sven takes Kchimsky to his physiotherapy sessions, and to events at which Kchimsky talks to young people about his time as an Auschwitz 'resident'. In between Sven helps out here and there, and regularly, because of language problems and inexperience, gets himself into trouble. At one stage a group of young German apprentices (in Poland??) sets up a memorial in a village which formerly had been Auschwitz III. Kchimsky speaks at the opening, but is cut short by the company's director - and Sven's protest about this is not much cared for.  It makes me wonder how many locations in and around Auschwitz have similar memorials planted by well-meaning Germans....

There's a vague love interest, too, when he moves in with a female colleague and her complicated brother, but this falls apart when the colleague gets an opportunity to study abroad.

It was quite interesting, particularly seeing how busy Auschwitz is with tourist buses etc, but generally I felt much at a loss like Sven. But it was a short film, so that was all right.


Friday, October 03, 2008

How could I have missed that?

At a loose end last night I looked at the cinema programme - nothing interesting. Then popped briefly into www.bilietai.lt and discovered that the Banchetto Musicale festival, an early music festival, was in full swing, with two Monteverdi 'madrigal operas'.  Now, intellectually I find Monteverdi very interesting, but emotionally his music does not set my heather alight to any great degree. But next week I have my music exam, which may also cover Monteverdi, so I thought I'd better go. Bit strange that the announcement mentioned singers and actors, and that it was in the puppet theatre. But maybe they could not afford to pay for the Filharmonija hall?

The theatre was packed, with many people standing, for the fourth performance of the pieces in a week - full of young people and even some young children, including a babe in arms. Had some doubts about that one, but they, like me, were totally mesmerised.

It was a puppet show! The singers were standing on a podium high above the stage, the band could not be seen, but the puppets did the acting - and they were amazing!

The 'combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda' was a slightly mournful piece for three voices and a four-part band (unusual in Monteverdi's time) describing, essentially, a battle between two knights. The knights were represented by life-sized armoured arms, legs, bodies and heads moved separately by several puppeteers each. In the course of the battle the bodies got divided many times, losing arms, legs, the head, sometimes only having legs or bodies, sometimes ending up in a body-part soup, sometimes just swords flying.....Among the singers I recognized Edita Bagdonaite and Mindaugas Zimkus (I think). The singing was fabulous, as was the accompaniment. There were Lithuanian surtitles, but I did not have time to look at them or try to understand them, watching the action all the time. Wikipedia tells me that this piece includes the earliest known uses of pizzicato and tremolo - I remember the second one, when a knight was a bit scared.  But still, musically, it was rather mournful; mainly recitatives with a fair amount of melismatic writing - I wondered whether these were written by Monteverdi or added by the singers or the editors of the music.

This was followed by the 'Ballo delle Ingrate' (Ball of the Ungrateful) - an incredibly funny production.  Some clouds danced, a very juvenile Amor fluttered around, and a lady (Venere, why does that remind me of 'venereal diseases') danced - looking at the libretto in Italian, I wonder if she was  Amor's mum?  Then the action moved up to the podium where appeared the huge face of an ogre (Plutone) who I suspect was to fall in love with Venere.  Plutone's part really plumbed the depths of the bass voice, and the singer was amazing. Given that the mouth of the Plutone puppet moved alongside the singer's, the audience cracked up. And the audience did not stop cracking up, because then started the ball of the ungrateful; 6 huge heads of very elderly ladies sitting on strong shoulders sitting on the floor (this is really difficult to describe); the hands of the actors moving them, which poked out between neck (what neck??) and shoulders, appeared very tiny indeed. The faces were wonderful!  They danced, skipped ropes (with some difficulties, due to 'age'), had arguments, but then also sang - their mouths moved and the singers sang behind the stage.  It was absolutely brilliant!

At the applause the band came on stage, with their original instruments, including a gamba, a theorbo (I think, had spotted it sticking up at the back of the stage before), and Mindaugas Backus' period cello.

It was really worth going to see this!

Now before my exam I will have a parody mass on Saturday, (14.30, Franciscan church in Traku g), and - maybe, the 15th century German keyboard school on Sunday (19.00, Lutheran Church).  Apart from the first concert by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra on Saturday night. Roll on, autumn!


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Suffer the little children....

....seems to be a continuing theme in Jessica Duchen's books, of which I have just read the third, 'Hungarian Dances'. In every one of her books children seem to draw very much the short straw, either becoming anorexic, being pushed by ambitious parents, or being 'abandoned' by both parents, for different reasons. I hate that!

Another theme running through her books is music - this one is about a violinist who eventually finds herself, at considerable cost to her family (see above). Every time I see the title I have those Brahms Hungarian dances running through my head.

It's a story that flips backwards and forwards, between the life of her Roma grandmother, the lives of her parents who fled Hungary in 1956, and her own life - all of which contain a certain amount of trauma, particularly at the Hungarian/Roma end (I am not entirely sure why I do not care so much about the Roma part of the book; I also did not care so much for Colum McCann's 'Zoli', reviewed here which covers much the same topic. Is it because it is well-meaning foreigners writing about them? I think I might prefer a book written by a Roma person). In between there is the family who has lived across the road from Karina's (the heroine's) family who lose a daughter in a catastrophic railway accident.

There are some logic gaps - Karina's father appears to speak with a strong Hungarian accent and slightly fractured English - but he spent his first 7 years in New York - should he not have an American accent?  Also the body of her friend, following the train accident and a fire, is identified by a dental filling - but the accident happened in the 21st century - would they not have used DNA analysis to identify it conclusively?

It's a very readable book (lightish) in a sort of middle-class English way with Hungarian ingredients - a bit of an English goulash. Perhaps this adds extra spice (ouch!) to the type of readers who read Joanna Trollope (and no, an Aga is never mentioned). It's fairly unputdownable - I finished it on a long journey to Kazakhstan.