Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lithuania's best-kept secret

(I am procrastinating from revision, hence a couple of late reviews).

10 days ago, in the music academy, we had the 70th birthday celebration of Lithuania's best clarinettist, Algirdas Budrys - seems like only yesterday that we celebrated his 65th in a long series of concerts at the Filharmonija. He's probably the oldest professor at the music academy who still performs, and he does it well.  He played, as well as a number of his present and former pupils, and grandpupils.

The concert began with his Grand Trio (Budrys, Petras Geniusas and David Geringas) playing two movements from Brahms' piano trio op. 114. Beautifully played, of course - I sat close to the cello (quite an achievement in the packed hall), and oh, Geringas' sound! He really is such a stunning cellist!  I was also contemplating his good looks - for a guy 9 years older than me he looks pretty damn good, a man at the peak of his life.

There were lots of performances; outstanding were also Budrys' students Rimvydas Savickas and Azuolas ('acorn' in English?) Paulauskas putting together a very nice performance of Krommer's concerto for two clarinets, making it completely their own.

But who were these people from the Kaunas end of clarinet playing? 4 teenage boys, Zilvinas Brazauskas, Ernestas Sidiskis, Antanas Makstutis and Andrius Polianskas made everyone smile with their fun, funky, highly spirited performance of D'Rivera's 'Contradora' - what talents, what choreography and how much fun they had - and we! There was a quite a bit of life, nay, a cornucopia of life (that sadly seems to disappear as people hit 25). We need to get that inoculated into the music academy, too. Similarly Dainius Karzenauskas, Dalius Pilikevicius, Eitvydas Gavutis, and Rimvydas Vilkas, saxophonists from the Kaunas faculty of the music academy produced a spirited and fun version of Wibernu's 'Afrika'. Ok, so these pieces were light music, but there's nothing wrong with that - they were in any case technically challenging, and again played with gusto!   Kaunas, get yourself known in the world! Your wind players are outstanding!

(And my readers' homework for today is memorizing all these Lithuanian names).


Bliss is...

...being in Georgia, with not much to do, and watching the Berlin Philharmonic via the internet. It worked, nearly for the whole concert (picked from the archive). If I can get that elsewhere in the world, this subscription will really be worth it.

It was a concert of works by Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Schumann, conducted by Heinz Holliger with Thomas Zehetmair as the violin soloist. I meant only to watch the Schumann, but hit the wrong button and got the whole concert. That was actually quite interesting, and I am glad I did. I don't think I had ever heard or seen Heinz Holliger, who, like Arthur Scargill, wears a weasel across his head, and seemed rather underdressed in his lounge suit. Holliger, to me, is more known as an oboist, with a bent towards contemporary music

Zimmermann, I had always thought, would be an avantgarde type of composer, but in fact he is very tonal. His Alagoana (Caprichos Brasilieros) had quite a few West Side Story type elements - did he filch from Bernstein? They might be a nice piece for the Simon Bolivar orchestra to play, lots of rhythms, tunes, percussion...a tiny bit long, though, for a piece at the beginning of a concert.  His violin concerto was awesome, also fairly traditional in structure and very technical. Zehetmair played it with such ease and panache!

Schumann always gets me here (points at heart). I'm not sure why this is - I feel quite sorry for him and the struggles he had, with his mental illness (bipolar disorder, some people say); and at the same time he expresses his aching love in his music for his Clara; someone worked out, in the 1960s, that Schumann had a code where alphabetic letters were expressed by notes, and then identified the word 'Clara' in many of his pieces. Zehetmair joined the orchestra for the Fantasy for violin and orchestra (op 131); it was beautiful!

And finally the first symphony, with hints towards his wonderful Konzertstück for 4 horns. Schumann must have really liked the sound of horns; in some way the use of bright brass in the 19th century was more of a French thing to do (Berlioz); maybe the Rhinelander Schumann was influenced by French music. Also a great performance (what else can you say about the Berlin Phil); Holliger was a tiny bit irritating - he's a very active conductor, with much body movement. I wondered if that came from being an oboist - oboists and clarinettists tend to sway about in a way that, say, brass players could not risk to do.  But it was a lovely, lovely concert, all the better for having it accessible in the furthest corners of the world.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Not a note out of place....

....at last night's concert for the SOS Talents foundation at the Filharmonija. It was a concert broadcast directly by Mezzo TV into 38 countries with, as they said, 16 million viewers. High-powered stuff, no? The first direct broadcast by Mezzo from Vilnius.

Our President, Mr Adamkus, is the patron of this foundation started by the Hungarian Michel Sogny in 2001. M Sogny is a pedagogue, composer and pianist, and also the Lithuanian honorary consul in Geneva. I have to say that the President looked like a man in pain; it's good that he will be able to put his slippers on and his feet up later this year, after the presidential election in May or so. The way he was standing, left shoulder much higher than the right one, no weight on the left leg, gives me two theories about his health. One is that of back pain, the other I won't discuss on a public website - suffice it to say that the only person I have seen standing exactly like this was suffering from a long-term degenerative disease. M le Président gave an introductory speech, translated into French by a poor interpreter who interrupted the President (I would have stopped, he wasn't having any of it), and then M Sogny gave another speech.

It seems SOS Talents is about sponsoring young pianists from the former Soviet Union and associated countries, most of whom follow the M Sogny school of piano playing, and many of whom have had masterclasses with him. So here we had pianists aged 10 to 19. The first half was entirely piano playing - I don't care that much for this, so I left that part after three out of four pianists. They all faithfully performed 6 Sogny etudes, all thankfully short, plus each played some other pieces. Listening to them all, especially the young ones, made me think of the Lang Lang biography I had read recently, especially when I read about the long lists of prizes some had won at competitions. Yes, they played nicely, and correctly, but the expression was not always there - the delightful Adam Szolokay (12) from Hungary played Bartok's Romanian Dances, beautifully, very beautifully indeed - but actually they need to be played roughly, like on a scratchy violin at a village dance. Two of the Lithuanians, taught by Justas Dvarionas, played pieces by grandpère Dvarionas, Balys of that ilk, in whose compositional abilities I have not much faith, though the one set of pieces I heard in this concert here had a bit more potential, with a Débussyan flavour.  Sogny's studies were, compositionally, not far removed from the 18th century in terms of tonality and structure - but then they were studies for educational purposes, not concert pieces.

In the second half the Lithuanian chamber orchestra joined them for the first movements of Beethoven's piano concertos Nos 1 and 3, and that Bach piano concerto (originally for harpsichord) that everyone knows. The Beethovens were, I'm afraid, rather hard - Beethoven has written lyrical bits in his music, but these did not come out, more so with the younger participant, Alexandra Masaleva (13) than Morta Grigaliunaite (17). Did not help that the orchestra had also not noticed the lyrical moments - but perhaps they were trying to match the soloists. Tedo Diakonidze from Georgia (16) was something else, though. Bach does not really do lyrical, but Diakonidze still exposed different colours and played a beautiful second movement. He was also by far the best-mannered of all the participants, remembering to thank the orchestra leader after his performance. Lovely guy; I hope he will go far.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Delightful Bruckner

Bit of a posh do in the Filharmonija last night. The concert was sponsored by Statoil whose flag was placed outside the concert hall, and many ambassadors attended - the Austrian, Norwegian, Vatican, Japanese, and I think the Georgian ambassador, who, sitting in the row behind me, talked loudly during one of the pieces (which gives me a clue) until I glared at him. Otherwise the hall was far from full. In addition that American-Lithuanian businessman who only comes to concerts when they are a posh do. In concerts like these many invitations are given out, but a programme involving Bruckner and Shostakovich is not that attractive to non-music-lovers, so folk don't come. At least people did not applaud between movements, as often happens on such occasions, and most stayed for the second half. Given that at least two Ambassador's cars were there at the end of the concert, the motivation must have been the concert - there did not appear to be drinks after the concert.

But who was the announcer? Not the usual authoritative and delightful lady, but a slip of a girl, who talked well and audibly, but got a bit carried away with herself in the handing out of flowers to the soloist, making a little speech.

Do all the Norwegian upper string players come from the same Lego box? I'm just asking, because Arne Tellefsen, the violinist, looked like a miniature version of the viola player Lars Anders Tomter. Given that Tomter is easily 2m tall, this makes the miniature version about 1.70 - 1.80 tall; otherwise there was no difference in looks, though Tellefsen is probably a bit older.  He performed in Shostakovich's first violin concerto, with Thomas Rösner of Austria conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Lithuania.

This is an awesome piece; long, with much complicated technique. The first movement, a nocturne, was a bit not going anywhere, fairly languid, not really telling a story (one would think that a nocturne would tell a bedtime story) - it seemed to lack tension a bit (I'm listening to Daniel Hope's more interesting recording of this movement).  The fireworks started in the second movement, and never stopped. Does the second movement involve a theme from the cello concerto? It seemed familiar. The second and fourth movements sounded typically Shostakovich, and quite Soviet. There is a long, looooong, and hair-raising, cadenza at the end of the third movement. Of these last three movements Tellefsen gave an awesome performance, with incredible energy. For the deserved encore he played Ole Bull's piece 'A mother's prayer'. Ole Bull is well-known to violin aficionados as a 19th century virtuoso (I thought he made fiddles, too, but I must be mistaken). The piece was a bit sentimental, but I suppose in the 19th century mothers had reason for prayer, what with the child death rate being what it was then.

I never thought that I would use the words 'delightful' and 'Bruckner' in the same sentence, but this is what it turned out to be. My heart had sunk at the prospect of Bruckner, but I thought that it would be good for me - and I am really glad I stayed! The first movement of this fourth symphony (the 'Romantic') could almost have been a ballet score; the third movement of which I knew the main theme was a very strict scherzo (bit unusual by that time) repeating the first part verbatim (the conductor turned back his pages.....), and had a lovely rural middle part. There were some lovely melodies; hints of Mahler (to come) with those Austrian trills; generally it was a very Austrian piece. I really must look at Bruckner more.... Don't know what Thomas Rösner had done to the orchestra; the French horns were outstanding, for once, the cellos sounded really lush, there were some lovely viola solos. It really was a great concert! (Sadly, the applause was tired - perhaps because the piece ends with a bit of a damp squib).


Saturday, March 14, 2009

How to get a composer to write for viola

You take one composer, marry him and get him to produce a viola-playing off-spring. As is the case with the composer Juozas Juozapaitis and his son Jurgis. I first heard Jurgis a few years ago, attempting the Paganini Sonata per la gran viola.  It was a bit ambitious, bit of a struggle.

So I was surprised when only a short while later he ended up in the last seat of the Lithuanian chamber orchestra.

But I have now revised my opinion. Last night I heard him and an (unfortunately names not noted) clarinet player and a pianist at the music academy, playing Mozart, a piece by Dad, Francaix and Bruch. It was pretty damn good, for all of them - the clarinet player played very nicely too.  (We have a great viola and clarinet teachers in Lithuania).

Having heard the Mozart only from the outside (I had gone to the wrong building, and nearly was trapped in some concert by some singers, ye gads), I entered in time for the Juozapaitis (senior), who had written a very nice piece, too. In three movements, with a kind of a conversation between the viola and the clarinet; very listenable-to. It's worth putting this in the repertoire.

The Francaix was beautifully played, too - it's a rather over-long piece, but very nice, as is the Bruch. Overall the concert was rather long (and young Jurgis has another one on Monday!), but really, it was all very musically performed, with beautiful intonation and lovely expression. The boy will go far!


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Two harrowing childhoods

These are two very different childhoods, but ones you would not wish on your worst enemy. I'm talking about Lang Lang (growing up as an only child in China) and Janice Galloway (whose older mother, during pregnancy, thought she was the menopause and the child was thus welcomed into the family), growing up in Saltcoats, Scotland.

In his autobiography, Lang Lang (born in about 1983) describes how parents in China invest all their hopes in their only child. He sure got to feel that! His father always wanted him to be Number One - in a country where at any one time, 50 million children learn to play the piano! Thus Dad devoted his life to making sure that his son became the Number One. This meant making his boy practice all the time. The father attended his lessons, later, at the Central music school in Beijing, the father spied on the lessons of other children to such a degree that the other teachers began to complain about him. At one stage the father, in his despair about the son's progress, held him over the balcony rail of their block of flats and wanted him to commit suicide; when that failed, he wanted the boy to take pills.....Once Lang Lang 'failed' as a pianist - he came only 7th in a competition.  If Lang Lang did not practice enough or make enough progress the father would not allow his mother, who in a distant part of China earned the money that kept them all afloat, and who was sorely missed by her son, to visit the child.

Life in China was always about competitions, winning the local one, the national one, an international competition....the family raked together enough money to send the boy and his family to Germany for a competition, then to Japan....Later Lang Lang got a place to study in the US. He arrived clutching a piece of paper listing the next competitions he wanted to enter. His teacher told him that this was not the way they do it there...so he knuckled down. When, after his US breakthrough, he wanted to play a concert in China with a major US orchestra, the Chinese authorities nearly refused him to come - on account of him having won no further competitions. At the press conference on arrival they asked, effectively 'so what exactly is it you have done in the US?'. 

Was it worth it all? Of course he now has all the trappings of a glittering life-style, and he has been able to side-line his father in the US, what with Dad's English being not so good. But he has also suffered from severe depressions..... a condition which he may have been able to overcome thanks to having to take an enforced break after a hand injury, when he suddenly realised there were other things to life than playing the piano.

It's harrowing stuff, well-written (by a ghost writer) and unputdownable.

Janice Galloway's life in Saltcoats, on the other hand, was quite different ('This is not about me', described as a memoir-cum-novel). An unexpected, and it seems, unwanted child born in the mid 1950's (her mother tells her at the age of 4 for the first time that she wishes she had not been born), she grows up with her mother, her abusive and drunk father (until that age) and a sister who is about 20 years older and a nasty piece of work. The mother flees from the marital home when Janice is 4 and finds shelter in the tiny attic of her doctor's surgery which she cleans in return. The attic is so small that when the bed is pulled out there is just a tiny bit of space for the mother to move around it. Then the sister returns from her broken-up marriage and joins them there.....(it never becomes clear what exactly has happened to the sister's son).  Later the father dies and the family returns to the family home, an 'architect-designed' council house.

I'm not sure what makes the sister tick. Is it sibling rivalry - for a 20-year-old? She seems to be totally selfish, and constantly bullies and trips up little Janice, who quickly learns to keep her head down. Keeping her head down seems to be the central theme of her life - living at the doctor's she has to be quiet when he has surgery, quiet when she accompanies her mother in her cleaning rounds, and quiet at home when her sister, Cora, sleeps. So when she starts school, she is good at being 'good' and quiet - and her world is totally rattled when in a gym lessons the children are told to run around and pretend to be an aeroplane, and to make a noise. She cannot deal with this and refuses to participate. Later her mother is called into the school and told that Janice seems to have some problems; the school suggests, among others, that Janice should see a psychologist - the mother refuses, angrily. Little Janice finds some solace in singing, which she and her mother do well, and in writing, especially in forming beautiful letters.

The book ends around the time she finishes primary school. For me it was very evocative, given that I know Saltcoats, West of Scotland culture and the language spoken there. I just wonder how many other children there grew and grow up like this (though in many cases now parents in her mother's situation might not care about their children being noisy or quiet or anything).


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Breaking the back of Bruch

What the heck was the matter with the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre today? There was the Malmö music academy orchestra, having travelled all the way from Sweden, and only the head of strings represented the music academy (in the first half). I mean, they are partners in the Erasmus programme, and some Lithuanians were in the orchestra, but neither the rector, nor the head of the senate, nor the Lithuanian music academy orchestra's conductor, nor a representative of the international department had the grace to support the guest orchestra. Not good enough - actually quite rude and shocking! (Apart from that the whole Lith music academy orchestra had received invitations, but of those also few attended).

So there they were, a big band, playing Körvitt, Bruch and Stenhammer. Tönu Körvitt's Passacaglia is so new, the ink is still wet. In terms of music, it was a fairly traditional piece. With a passacaglia, or a ciaconna for that matter, I expect to hear an 8-bar or so theme that goes round and round and round. I failed to spot that, but during this piece my mind rather wandered. It certainly covered a huge instrumental range.  

This was followed by the Bruch No 1 violin concerto (only the fourth hearing of it in Vilnius this year), with Vilhelmas Cepinskas as the soloist. He's a bit of a star performer in Lithuania, with a trend towards funkiness. Funky might work with Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons', but it does not really work with romantic music.  It was a rather strange performance, with extreme rubatos, rhythms which I doubt that Bruch wrote them, and the odd unusual sound here or there. Romantic music tends to be more prescriptive than Baroque music - I suspect Cepinskas did not follow the doctor's orders to the letter. The orchestra accompanied with enthusiasm!

Finally Stenhammer's second symphony. It's a folksy, pleasant, but rather long piece. Stenhammer seems to like dark sounds - three out of four movements were opened by the violas and cellos, who played beautifully (with two Lithuanian viola players, so they should!). The fourth movement was overlong, hurtling from one set of themes to another.  The orchestra played beautifully - not sure if they can do 'quiet', but they can certainly do 'loud' and 'enthusiastic'. Bags of energy.

Strange thing though - is it something that is in the Baltic sea? Neither their nor Lithuanian wind groups seem to be able to start all at the same moment.