Monday, May 25, 2009

Wonders will never cease!

Got a big surprise after the end of the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra's contribution to the Vilnius Festival - see below.

The programming involved the delightful Osvaldas Balakauskas' symphonic poem 'Tetra', Prokofiev's second piano concerto, and Skriabin's third symphony.  I had some misunderstanding about Tetra; I thought it was an early work (of the 70s) but it is in fact a work of 2007; quite recent, therefore.  It's a piece for full, very full orchestra, including piano (I did not see one, but maybe it was under the balcony, and thus under me), lots of percussion, and harp. I am not sure the textures really came through - the way it was performed it was rather a lot of noise; maybe it is meant to be like that, maybe not. Not sure if 'Tetra' is a Lithuanian word (it's not in my dictionary), or whether it is related to 3, as in 'tetrapak'. Oh dear, the associations we have. Would need to listen to it again.

This was followed by Prokofiev's second piano concerto; a piece I did not know at all.  Toradze is apparently a great Prokofiev expert; he has recorded all Prokofiev's five concertos and his recording of the third has been described as 'historically the best on record, out of over 70 recordings (Wikipedia reports).  This one was a momentous work; in a kind of baroque structure with four movements, but that's where the baroque stops. Technically it looked, and sounded, awesome - with long, very long, composed cadenzas, and a serious physical work-out for the pianist.  Toradze, for the big guy that he is, has the most amazing soft touch, where required - I bet as a dancer he'll be light on his feet, as some people of that size are.

Finally we had Skriabin's third symphony, another piece I don't know at all (theme of the evening?). Again a stunning piece, with lovely violin lines (cannot remember that much about it, to be honest, two days after the event). Three movements, played in one; it went down very well indeed.

The surprise? I never thought that Domarkas can speak English, but here both he and Toradze (who lives in America but is a Georgian who studied in Russia; he and Domarkas go back a long way) spoke English all evening. Usually Domarkas speaks Lithuanian and takes no prisoners with soloists who do not share this language (ie ALL foreigners).  And his English is good!  It confirmed my idea that he is a Lithuanian nationalist. At the post-concert reception there was a flavour of anti-Russian Georgian and Lithuanian nationalism in the air; ah well.


What was much more interesting in the town hall yesterday...

....than the Fortvio interview was the press photo exhibition on the top landing, covering the Georgian/Russian war, some Lithuanian politics and life in Lithunia.

One cannot expect, in Lithuania, even-handedness when Georgia and its freedom are concerned; so the photos were of Georgian soldiers being taken prisoner, an old woman protesting in the street and so on. In another country perhaps a photo of the shelled by Georgians Tskhinvali might have been included, for balance.

Among the Lithuanian photos was one of one poor MP, who at some event involving journalists, dropped his mobile phone, and when leaning back to pick it up, it seems he got the heebie-jeebies about the journalists. Whereupon he fled into a cleaner's cupboard, and hid in that, with the journos outside, for nearly 12 hours. The photo is of him leaning with his face into a wall, eyes closed - story is that he did not move while in there. Afterwards the police carted him off for an alcohol test. I suspect that a chap, who had really been alcoholised, would have left some other traces after 12 hours in a cupboard.  I felt really sorry for the guy.

Then there was a photo of a wee boy and his labrador who had been hit by a train (the dog) and survived. They're tough, those Labs. The dog's front leg had been injured, and he had lost a large chunk of skin, it seems, from his shoulder. Also he was wearing one of those trumpet things over his head, to stop him scratching his ears, or maybe linking his shoulder. I was surprised to read that the skin was being fixed with 'medical skin'. Of course I know nothing about the case, but I do remember that when my cat was half-skinned by a car, looking like a skinned chicken, the skin and hair grew back all by themselves....


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dear Fortvio Trio....

so today I went to the concert of my favourite Lithuanian trio, in the Vilnius town hall - and what did I get? A 'meet the Fortvio Trio' event.

Now I know the tickets were cheap - was that why we got so little music and so much talking? Ok, so you organised a stunningly attractive mistress of honour, with hair larger than her American size 0 body, and who was very good at her job...but why all this talking? She gave a long introduction, rattling through everyone's CVs - and everyone who was there knew you anyway, apart from the tourists who would not understand her, then you played a short piece (Tanayev?), and then up came another interview, about how you met and all that. In the Tanayev, and the first movement of the Haydn, the piano was far too loud - I could see the violin play, but not hear her - maybe that was an acoustics problem in the town hall. Often I could not hear the cello either, and dammit, I was in the second row.

Frankly, that's what I don't go to concerts for, but for music. And what was that with you playing only 2 movements of the Haydn? That's something that school children do, but frankly, you are now adults, and it is time to give serious concerts. The Haydn was, to be fair, stunningly played - oh, that third movement! But then started another interview about competitions. That's when I left, and went to the supermarket instead.

Did you not have enough repertoire to fill the whole concert? I was a bit worried anyway about you playing all those competition pieces. Competitions are all very well, but rather an East European way of building a career, and I am sure you spend much time working up competition pieces, when you should be broadening your repertoire instead.

You are still my favourite trio; when you played, you played with such energy and enjoyment - but please, give us adult-sized concerts next time.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Nostril to Nostril....

that's what the audience and the performers were, at tonight's concert of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra performing the Bernstein Mass. There was the audience (it was sold out, at the last minute I was able to buy a ticket off an old lady) with extra rows in front of the front row, seats up the stairs, and there were the performers - two choirs, 9 soloists, the orchestra with extra reinforcements. There were loudspeakers - the soloists were miked up (I mean, really, it was a 'classical' music concert), so if anything had short circuited and caught a fire, there would have been deaths. No fire police in Lithuanian concert venues.....

Can't say I care for this piece. It was interesting, far from the traditional mass format I expected; kind of West Side Story meets Sound of Music meets American evangelical preachers.  But what does a yiddishe boy know about goyim music anyway (or vice versa).... The solo singing was more musical style, with singers who I had never seen before, apart from one opera house singer who had about two lines to sing. They were very very good, though. There was even a boy soprano, poor soul, he had to wear a virgin-white suit - at the beginning he was far from the class in which he would have been allowed to sing a solo in a British choir school (we don't have that tradition here, and it shows), but he got better at the end. It was really rather corny, though, the way in which, at the end, he joined the main part (narrator, priest kind of role) and seemed to walk off into the sunset. The narrator singer was really, really good at what he did - it's just that American evangelical preachers make me want to vomit. I mean, religion is something sacred, not something to be folksy or happy-clappy about. To me, anyway.  Perhaps I should treat it as ironic....  And what did it have to do with narcotics? That word flashed up on the Lithuanian translation screen - something like 'keep me taking from narcotics'. Bernstein would know, I suppose.

Some weird stuff about this performance; there were bits in which taped music was played. Was that intended by Bernstein, was the band unable to play these bits,  or did they not have time to rehearse these?  The percussion, Pavelas Giunteris and many colleagues, had a field day. The rest of the orchestra did not play, most of the time - it was nearly always only ever sections of the band.

It was very interesting in an appalled sort of way, but I felt severely tempted to go and leave, whether Mr President was there or not. But it was 1 hour 40 minutes of uninterrupted music, and there was nothing I could do....That's one I can tick off now.


Get those coats aff the chairs!

You know those concerts where the seats are not numbered? So people come in early, and spread their coats or programmes over the chairs next to them for their friends, who often cruise in at the last minute, and sometimes not. I once remembered a little old lady in Russia, sitting in the front row, defending the seat next to her to the death. The only occupant of the seat was her handbag, and lots of home-grown (or park-grown) flowers, with which she rushed to the stage, every time the conductor dropped his baton - between movements 'n all.  The next day I saw her outside the supermarket, going through bins looking for empty bottles.....

This is intensely irritating. It would appear, as the German Fono-Forum states, that in Germany at least this contravenes the law, the Buergerliches Gesetzbuch (for my German readers). I wonder how that is phrased in the law: 'Though shalt not place thy coat across the seats of others?'. It's about a person occupying more seats than they paid for, I think.

Of course it takes a brave soul to actually take a seat on which someone else's coat has been placed. The way to do it, apparently, is to approach the seat and the person who took it and thank them for keeping it for you. That takes them by surprise. If you have trouble, get the hall attendants to help you. Probably will work better in Germany, given the legal situation. But you could try it elsewhere....


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rocking Messiah!

We don't often get to hear the Messiah in Vilnius - there is no tradition of Messiah and Christmas. Which is a shame. So having it a couple of days ago, in May, was a real treat. The performance was even more of a treat!

It was a concert in memory of Menuhin, who toured the world with the Messiah, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, the Kaunas State Choir and the singer Benno Schollum, among others. 50 times they performed the piece in the 90s, when days were still dark in Lithuania. And now the days look slightly darkening again, what with the Government's handling of the economic crisis....But the ray of hope on the horizon is the new President, Ms Grybauskaite - though whether she has the power to change things is another question.

Anyway. This time it was the choir of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (why that one?) consisting of exactly 15 men and 15 women - that's what I call a balanced choir! The soloists, all young, were Jana Mamanova, Lucia Duchonova, Eric Stoklossa, and Wiard Withold, an extremely tall Dutch bass; the conductor was the choirmaster of the Bamberg Choir, Rolf Beck.

Last year, in my music course, I listened to about 9 interpretations of the introduction to the Messiah - they were all incredibly different, some lush, some punchy, some on 'original' instruments, some on modern instruments (in the case of strings that might mean instruments older than 'original' instruments). This performance was very punchy indeed, almost percussive in places. Very different from the Menuhin interpretation.  But it was sublime - there were moments of extreme pianissimo (where the choir sang a capella) followed by outbursts from the orchestra. The soloists were all wonderful; Withold had by far the best English diction. Some American friends said that they found it funny, seeing Germans sing it in English, when they (the Murricans) tended to sing it in German.  But English was what Handel wrote it in.

I had not appreciated before the sheer emotional power of the Messiah; that aria 'he was despised, rejected...' and that other aria where he is alone, looking around 'for someone to take pity on him' - that is really, really heartbreaking stuff. I should listen to it more often....

Funny moment with the Hallelujah. I could not remember whether in Lithuania it was traditional to stand during this chorus; as it approached my tension was rising. It seems not. When it started I saw half a dozen people stand in the rear of the hall (at least two of them Lithuanian Americans), so I stood up, in the front of the hall. Whereupon the people from the 'celebrity row' followed, and in a whoosh, the rest of the hall. It slightly fell apart afterwards because a number of people applauded, but never mind. At the end the performers got a standing ovation; they launched into an encore, we sat down, it was the Hallelujah chorus again, we shot out of our seats.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Looks like a result!

It seems, on current opinion polls, that Dalia Grybauskaite, the current EU Budget Commissioner, may have won the presidential election in the first round of voting - the most recent estimate (19.00 hrs) was 67.5%, well over the 50% required to avoid a run-off.

One of her advantages, apart from being a superbly intelligent politician, is that she has been out of Lithuania for five years, and not involved in any of the shenanigans that have been going on in the last few years. She threw her hat into the ring in February, after the small riot over the Government's handling of the economic crisis (they are tightening everyone's belt, so no wonder that the economy is shrinking fast).

She had to overcome some obstacles, though; over her sexual orientation - she is an unmarried woman and there have been rumours over exactly who she might prefer - she said that she was not a lesbian. Can you believe someone having to state that??

Then over her nationality - this blonde woman has a father with a Greek first name, Polikarpas (which is incidentally also the name of the chap who my road in Georgia was named after, Polikarpe Kakabadze - no doubt about links between Greece and Georgia, apart from the Salomes and Medeas of the Georgian world). Someone legally challenged her, and she had to place hers and her mother's birth certificates in the internet to prove that she is a true Lithuanian. The question was never clarified whether the challenger was talking about ethnicity or citizenship....

But at last we may have a president who is not only untainted by scandal (if there were any, the Lithuanian media would find it), and one who has a pulse and a true close connection to the country, her absence in Europe notwithstanding. That was 5 years, not 50 years as in the case of Mr Adamkus, for all the good egg that he is.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beethoven in miniature

Another day, another Vilnius festival concert. At the same time the European Festivals Association is having its conference in Vilnius, and so the fragrant Filharmonija Director, Ruta Prunskiene, was looking her best in a suitably Chinese-style outfit (and no doubt she was approaching exhaustion as well). 

This time it was Muza Rubackyte, the Lithuanian piano professor in Paris, a well-loved pianist in Lithuania, with the Shanghai Quartet plus Girdutis Jackaitis playing the second viola in the Beethoven 4th piano concerto. Where, I hear you ask, is the orchestra? There was none - it was a version for piano and string quintet!

That was interesting. I was wondering about the orchestration, were there no winds? According to wikipedia it contains a flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timps. All that reduced to 5 strings?  Must have been some job transcribing that, although often instruments were doubled in Beethoven's time anyway. My main worry was about the thinness of the violins; they sounded like mice squeaking away over the other instruments - but it could be with me sitting on the balcony on top of them, that the sound could not get through the balcony floor. I also felt that the strings and the piano had different interpretations; the strings were crisp and clean, whereas the piano was heavy on the pedal - and does the piece really start with an arpeggiated chord? The piano kind of washed over the much reduced forces. It was interesting to notice that the pianist was playing from a full score; maybe the absence of winds and timps did not give enough clues for the piece to be played from memory. The cadenza in the slow movement, I thought, ground to an unplanned halt at one moment, following an unexpected chord.  Quite a lot of people left after she had played - it is ever thus. They should have kept her till the end.

The second half was Penderecki's third string quintet 'An unwritten diary page' (2008) and Debussy's Quartet opus 10, written in 1893. Surprisingly, there was not much difference between the two; Penderecki was of course about 75 at least when he wrote his piece. Mellow old age? It had a lovely viola part, and the violist in the string quartet really has a wonderful sound. The Debussy was actually very nice; quite energetic, not like some of his simpering impressionist pieces - and the quartet played with great energy, enthusiasm and precision. Finally there were a couple of encores, arrangement of (Chinese?) folksongs, possibly written by the second violinist. Very simple arrangements for simple music, but very effective. To be honest, Chinese folksongs (if this is what they were) do not sound that different from other folksongs, certainly not like the sounds of Chinese opera. But then, whose folksongs do sound like opera?

It was a lovely concert. Before someone had tried to sell me a ticket for 100 LT (the concert must have been sold out); I got a slightly sarcastic comment when I refused saying I would buy one ('try then', he said), and I got a nice standing room ticket for 30 LT. There are steps people can sit on, so it's perfectly ok. In the second half there would have been real seats for me to move to, had I wanted to do so.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The North Ossetian, the red-eared orchestra, and the wonderful tuba

It occurred to me, during the interminable announcement before the London Symphony Orchestra's concert in Vilnius tonight (opening the Vilnius Festival), to wonder what a North Ossetian was doing in Lithuania, which so much loves Georgia (and vice versa).  Said North Ossetian, Valerij Gergiev (stress on the 'i', apparently) was the only international conductor to launch a concert in Tskhinvali, a month after much of it was laid to waste by Georgia.

That was that story. The red-eared orchestra? A number of ears sported red ear protectors, as probably they all should, especially when sitting in front of the brass, who had been moved around to the side of the opera theatre to improve the acoustics.  Do they need to be red? One of the second violinists had been wearing one, on the brass side, but still, his face was tripping him up for England at the end of the concert.

So the programme included the world premiere of Rodion Shchedrin's 'Lithuania saga', partly in memory of the battle of Gruenberg 600 years ago, whatever that was and whatever it was for. I'm not into history.  Before the concert, the audience's attention had been drawn to Mr Shchedrin, and his wife, the delightful assoluta Maya Pliseckaja, who, aged just over 80 or so, did the ballerina's bowing thing with her arms.  The piece...well, it kind of was. It did not seem to tell much of a story and in particular it was not going anywhere. Suddenly it stopped. Hmmm. Maybe so did the battle? Would hardly be celebrated in that case.

Then there was Stravinsky's symphony in three parts; typical rhythmic Stravinsky. I thought the orchestra was a bit tired (and it seems they have had daily concerts, with travel in between, for a week, so they probably really were tired).  There was no fire, no zing. For that to pay 50 LT for a standing ticket, during which time I could contemplate the distribution of shoe polish in the orchestra; clearly it had not reached the last row of the second violins....Perhaps my position in the hall did not help?

Anyway, stayed for the second half - it was Rakhmaninov's Slavonic Dances. There was a lovely viola solo, and some nice cello playing. It had a bit more zing.  By this time I had a seat, and could observer Gergiev's weird conducting style.  He does do a beat when needed (eg in the Stravinsky, and the way he was peering at the Shchedrin I thought it was not exactly under his skin), but otherwise his hand is like a skater doing his turns.

The orchestra finally came to life with the Montagues and the Capulets, in the first of two encores. There was some awesome pianissimo playing in the strings, stunning brass (especially the tuba, which had a brilliant sound), and some real energy (even though presumably the orchestra plays this a lot). Similarly the piece from the Love of 3 Oranges was very nice indeed. Shame they could not give it laldy in the first half.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

The twelve-fingered pianist

Last concert of the National Symphony Orchestra's season last night, with the boss Juozas Domarkas conducting and Vestard Shimkus as the soloist in Brahms' second piano concerto.

Shimkus is but a young lad, aged 23 or 24, and a very talented young man, with a nice communicative personality. Apparently he had very much his own ideas about the Brahms, which caused some difficulties in the first rehearsal - the orchestra and conductor could not go into automatic drive, as they might have liked to have done. I wondered if the piece had any lyrical moments - there was not that much lyricism that came across. But he did play exquisitly and had some lovely interactions with the orchestra, where the first horn played the opening beautifully; this is not always guaranteed with the horn section in this orchestra.  He must be a 'product' of the Russian school; he does that thing with a handkerchief, cleaning the keyboard between every movement.  Only Russians do that.  His encores was a piece, seemingly for 12 fingers, which sounded like a variation on a folk song type thing (a Latvian folk song?).  It was astonishing! Then a bit of Bach and finally, to make a point, an arrangement of 'Guten Abend, gute Nacht'. He's great at interaction with the audience, which really helps to create a fan base.

The second half was Ravel and Ravel. First the Spanish Rhapsody, and then the Bolero - which allowed the orchestra's soloists and then some (saxophonists) to show off their skills. In the Rhapsody there were some iffy wind moments, and it could have done with more zing and panache; the Bolero was stunning - with the percussionist motoring on and on and on. I thought that he really must not think as he plays the same few bars over and over again. There was a very young cor anglais player who had me at the edge of my seat; he coped very well indeed and played some haunting solos.

It was a great ending to the Symphony Orchestra concert season (today there's a Filharmonija club picnic, and I'm missing another concert of Haydn; missed a trick there) - with an encore of the end of the Bolero and a standing ovation.

After the concert there was a wee reception, with the prime minister there. He's a surprisingly short guy (accompanied by some huge guy; his PPS?). I'm not that fond of his politics seeing the tax changes linked to his austerity budget cause me some austerity, too, but it was good to see that he did only a very tiny speech. Seems to be a sensible guy after all (and after doing some work researching the Lithuanian pensions system this week I can see that austerity is needed).


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Street Music Day

I've never seen Vilnius so full of young people, on a sunny almost summer weekend, and a long one at that - usually Vilnius is dead on such occasions. It was brilliant!

The reason? It was the third street music day (first Saturday in May) where anyone who wanted to could take their instrument and perform outside. So, ok, there was a lot of amplified band music everywhere (I wondered about the band playing outside St Catherine's church just before an a capella choir started singing inside it), but there were also other little groups; a trio of girls playing the kanklas (a kind of zither), some folks from the countryside with violins and accordeons, a sad little family group who you could see performing, but who were drowned out by the band beside them. But it was really nice to see the town so busy - and I am sure, whether you see this as culture or not, that quite a lot of cash registers in town may have been quite busy. It would be nice if someone measured this increase in revenue, to prove the benefits of culture to the economy.


A near miss!

There I was at home, 18.34, after a slightly dull day (public holiday, town dead) planning to go clubbing later in the evening, and looking to see what else might be on yesterday, today, tomorrow....when I spotted a State Symphony Orchestra concert, starting at 19.00. Wow! Changed into concert clothes, including a new shirt (worried in case some pins were left in it) and shot off across the road to the Kongresu Rumai.

It was a fully romantic concert, Strauss (Richard), Bruch, and Berlioz - playing to a half-empty concert hall - what else would you expect on a sunny long weekend evening? The conductor was Adrian Brown, the soloist Sasha Rozhdestvensky, stated to be one of Russia's 'finest young violinists' whom Menuhin pronounced to be 'one of the most talented and gifted violinists of his generation'. Sometimes I worry about the number of violinists carrying similar Menuhin statements around with him; Menuhin was kind of a polite guy, but he must also have been aware of the weight these kind of statements carry. Père Rozhdestvensky is that famous conductor, Gennady of that ilk.

The State Symphony Orchestra has changed a bit - seems like ages since I was there.

The programme was really all a bit old-hat; cheap in terms of performance rights, I expect. Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel, quite nicely played, though the first violinist was really rather dodgy in every one of her solos. I haven't been to that orchestra's concerts for ages, so I don't know if she is now the permanent leader or not (the other one, Zbigniev Levickas, would have done it beautifully).

Young Sasha Rozhdestvensky is indeed a violinist with a very beautiful tone. I was a bit surprised that he played the Bruch concerto (which I have heard now for this fifth time this year, in Vilnius) from sheet music. Is that not something so basic, in terms of repertoire, that one should know it from memory? I am not sure about his interpretation, though. It was rather old-fashioned, with lots of portamento and rubato; the way it might have been played 100 years ago, but is probably not really played now. But it's the Russian way, perhaps. His encore was a simple Bach piece; played better than Maxim Rysanov's Bach 6 days earlier - quite good, really. I wonder, though, if no-one else has written any encores for violin solo?

At the interval I asked what the final piece would be.....it was Berlioz' Fantastic Symphony; one of my favourite pieces! And to think that I might have missed that! It was great! The orchestra did really well - the quiet places they played as quietly as I rarely heard them play; the percussion - the fabulous Pavelas Giunteris and colleagues - was awesome, eery, threatening, overwhelming, everything as required. The violas laid down a wonderful solo (the cellos were a bit lacking in feeling, but it's that leader) - it was a great performance! Brown came across as a very secure and reliable conductor - one who really beats a beat (many conductors don't) and he really brought out the best of the orchestra.

Some time after the concert, tried to do a bit more clubbing...went to the cellar of the Neringa Hotel which advertises itself as having famous Lithuanian singers (live, presumably). At around 11 pm it was fairly deserted; had a small party and some men on their own, including me; plus a DJ and some canned music.....Luckily it also had a book shelf, though the only English book within my reach was that on the Rachel Nickell murder, written by her husband for the mass market - not exactly cheery stuff. Left after I finished my beer. This is not great - at what time do these Lithuanians get out?