29 August 2015

Vykintas Balatakas: Saxordionphonics

This week's installment brings us back to Lithuania. One because it is not long till I move into my new flat in Vilnius, but also because I do really enjoy this particular piece.

Vykintas Baltakas (1972*) is a highly driven composer and conductor, and his work with the Gaida Festival and the Lithuanian Ensemble Network (Lieutvos Ansambliu Tinklas) have helped bring new life to Lithuanian music and the way it is performed and viewed worldwide. Currently residing in Belgium Vykintas Baltakas's music is captivating and energetic. To quote his own biography:
'Vykintas Baltakas is a musical Scheherazade. His music keeps pulling you in and referencing itself, sometimes branching off and reinventing itself, and sometimes returning to where it started. He weaves musical stories that are linked with a delicate interconnected web'

This constant reinvention combined with an angst with his musical surroundings in Vilnius, probably made his move to Germany in 1993 quite so important. Studying with Wolfgang Rihm will have been worlds away from Baltakas's native Lithuania. As you will see in future blogs, many prominent Lithuanian composers leading up to the 1989 revolution were keen on exploring Lithuanian culture; either through drawing on ancient folk songs, folk art, or stories. Whereas Germany had 40 years of revolutionary ideas that had been constantly evolving since the end of the second world war. This extreme divide in musical landscapes allowed Vykintas to flourish. 
Now onto my personal favourite by Baltakas. His playful Saxordionphonics for soprano saxophone, accordion, and orchestra is a single movement work which hints at being a concerto by the way the soloists interact with each other and with the orchestra, but always manage to dodge it in such a way that you are always second guessing what the piece is going to do.

The opening stabs never quite reiterate themselves when you expect, always just a little after or just before you truly anticipate it. The entrance of the accordion begins with ricochets between accordion and the orchestra. The soprano saxophone enters and suddenly the dynamic of the piece changes but the moment passes quite quickly and you find yourself in a constant to and fro between motifs you have heard before and new ones.

This keeps the work energetic and ultimately quite cute and playful. The soloists in the recording perform this beautifully and with such gusto that you get the feeling that the piece is such a standard piece of the repertory; a sensation that happens rarely with contemporary recordings.

The work is not the most remarkable or definitive piece by Baltakas, but it is extremely lovable and a great introduction to his music. People who have fallen in love with this I'd recommend checking out pieces like 'Co(ro)na' or 'Pasaka' both are stunning piece which I will be mentioning in future installments.

Information have been gathered from:
Baltakas's official website: http://www.baltakas.net/biography/

21 August 2015

Georg Pelecis: Concertino Bianco for Piano and Strings

This installment features the work of a rather intriguing composer and musicologist Georg Pelecis. His music is intriguing on the simple grounds his musicological work have been extremely definitive in shaping his musical sound.

Currently a professor at the Latvian Academy of Music, Georg Pelecis has had a broad musical career. While he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory he studied composition under Aram Khachaturian. He has gone on to having creative positions in both Oxford University and Cambridge University. His musicology work has specialised in musical form, specifically in the works of medieval, renaissance, and baroque composers. His most extensive work has been on Palestrina and Ockeghem. 

The intense focus on Palestrina has been crucial in form his musical ideals of 'new consonant music'. This simple approach brings music to focus on modality and counterpoint, using these two parameters Pelecis can apply 'modern' ideals of harmony onto contrapuntal lines to produce music that is equally old and equally new. 

One of the most obvious and beautiful examples of this is his Concertino Bianco, for piano and strings. The work's name simply comes from the fact the entire piece is based on the white notes of the piano. The three movement work is ultimately very cute and bright with the strings and piano having a wonderfully mutual discourse throughout the work. This kind of balance is very reminiscent of the Brandenburg Concerti where the concertino group is quite distinct from the repiano group, but the two never feel exclusive or in conflict with one another. The opening movement is jolly and the piano lilts on its high register while the strings add a lot of warmth to the whole sound. The second movement is more sombre but never feels mopey or melodramatic. The final bouncing movement brings the whole work to a fun and enthusiastic end. 

This rendition by Heinrich Schiff with Alexei Lubimov at the piano, bring this work to life and every minute detail is heard beautifully. The whole concerto can be heard here and there are many recordings and videos of performances of Pelecis's work. His music is remarkably easy to gain an understanding of, but in my opinion, never feels  like it is attempting to pander to a common denominator. It simply is and does it remarkably well.


Information about Georg Pelecis came from his Wikipedia page: 

14 August 2015

Peteris Vasks: String Quartet No.1

For many fans of Latvian music, Peteris Vasks is quite the formidable character. Renowned for his simple but striking beauty. His works post-Latvia's regained independence have been defined by his incorporation of folk melodies, programmatic use of extended techniques, and musical and melodic clarity. The emotive powers of Vasks's oeuvre is quite unique from the 'group' of composers he is often tied up with (Henryk M. Gorecki, Arvo Part, John Taverner). Part of his uniqueness, I believe, is linked to his compositional education. Because of the regime at the time, being a Methodist, Vasks was not allowed to study in his native Latvia. This led him to emigrate across the border to Lithuania where he studied composition under the guidance of Valentin Utkin

As this blog aims to be an eye opener to the Baltic world, I wanted to introduce one of Peteris's earlier works. His early music is heavily influenced by the experiments and trends of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. This means the music of the time draws a lot of influences from sonoristic music like that of Krzysztof Penderecki. He also incorporated a lot of controlled aleatoricism like in the works of Witold Lutoslawski. 

The work I wanted to to introduce is Peteris Vasks's first string quartet.Written while he was living in Vilnius, the work became the first of five major string quartets. Each of these works have a wonderful uniqueness that can equal many leading composers of the 20th Century. The first quartet is intriguing for many reasons. The three movement work tackles the long tradition of the form, as well as challenging it with many contemporary ideas. The opening movement is extremely violent and powerful, with its hard striking bow strokes and extended techniques. The glissandi and extreme changes in dynamics keep the listener second guessing. The violence regularly disappears into still chords which suddenly explode again with an extra level of fury.

The second movement is a violent sonata, whose rapid circling motifs are very reminiscent of Bartok. The driving moto perpetuo leads to a dramatic chorale, full of angst and longing. In many ways this movement is the most traditional, not just because of its use of sonata form, and likeness to Bartok; simply because this movement uses no extended techniques or contemporary textural devices. The tension of the movement dissipates and leads to a solo for the cello. The cellist is able to use the gut-wrenching melody to draw all the emotive powers it can muster. The climax of the melody ushers in a recapitulation to the opening sequences. 

The final movement, simple titled 'Melodia' uses circling aleatoricism to underpin a beautiful melody first played by the viola, then by the first violin. The simply beauty created by these modern textures was probably a harbinger of where his music was heading. But after all the violence and intensity of the previous movements, the finale is a welcome relief and has the sensation of an even greater beauty. This recording by the Navarra Quartet really highlights the qualities of each movement and played with such astounding beauty and technical prowess. Their recordings of the second and third quartet is to be commended and I highly recommend giving them a listen.

The album can be found here: Vasks - String Quartet No. 1

All information gathered from the Schott webpage, Peteris Vasks wikipedia page, and the recording came from Spotify. 

9 August 2015

Juste Janulyte: Elongations of Nights

My last post was an introduction to the work of Osvaldas Balakauskas, this time I shall be casting an ear onto the work of Juste Janulyte. Born 1982, Juste is becoming one of, if not the, defining voice of her generation. A large portion of her success is owed the her signature aesthetic of monochromaticism. Like in the world of photography, Juste's monochromaticism refers to colour. This aesthetic is usually produced by writing for identical instruments, like in her work Psalms for 8 bass flutes; or alternatively by highlighting similarities in colour, like in her seminal work Observation of Clouds. 

As an introduction to her music, I shall discuss one of her early defining works Elongations of Night. Written in 2009 for the Lithuanian National Philharmonic, this work is quickly becoming one of Juste's most performed works; having already been performed in America, Britain, and Lithuania to name just a few performances. This piece is composed for a 21 piece string orchestra, and as the composer playfully suggests, if it were written by Morton Feldman would be called 'Fifths in my Life'. As you can hear from the recording, the opening is out of the world. The crystal whispering from the violins, evoke a world as magical as Rued Langaard's Music of the Spheres. From this, the low strings gradually enter in a canon, gradually building upwards. The climax of the work comes when the canon powerfully replaces the glistening harmonic trills. The end comes in a peaceful resolution as the canon continues moving gradually before coming to a quiet and restful end. 

This work has opened up Juste's musical world. Even though it is not her first monochromatic work, this piece is definitely her first solid mature work. From here she has continued to write profoundly beautiful works. In October, her new work for choir and electronics will get its premiere, I can't hold my excitement. If you haven't guessed, Juste shall be a regular feature of this blog, in future articles I intend to write full analyses of her works.

Visit Juste Janulyte's Website here

Information gathered from the following:

Her website: www.janulyte.info

and the music information centre www.mic.lt/en

3 August 2015

Osvaldas Balakauskas: Concerto for Oboe, Harpsichord, and Strings

The first composer I thought I should introduce everyone to, is a figure who holds the same kind of importance in Lithuania as Maxwell-Davies holds in England. Born in 1937, Osvaldas Balakauskas has been an influential figure in Lithuanian music since the middle of the 1960s. After studying in the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute before moving to Ukraine to study with Boris Lyatoshinsky at the Kiev Conservatoire. His time in Kiev was extremely influential on his work, it was during this time he was able to indulge in his loves of Xenakis, Stockhausen, Messiaen, and Webern. Between the years of 1988-1992 he was a member of the Lithuanian Independence Movement (Sąjūdis). After this time, he became one of the first ambassadors for Lithuania after regaining independence. He served as ambassador in France, Spain, and Portugal. 

The defining feature of O. Balakauskas, is the clash of serial techniques and tonality. He does this with his signature technique, which he calls, dodecatonality. This technique, has a multitude of implementations. If a composer were to use these ideals on a 12 tone row, Balakauskas's technique could approach this in two ways:

  1. By building a twelve tone row which implies traditional tonal harmonies, i.e. C, Eb, G, G#, E, B, Bb, F, D, F#,A,C#.
  2. Or by layering a tone row with with transpositions of itself to produce, tonal harmonies, i.e. the above row C, Eb, G, G#, E, B, Bb, F, D,F#, A, C#. Could be layered with a minor 3rd and a fifth. Eb, Gb, Bb, B, G, D, Db, Ab, F,A,C,E. and G, Bb, D, D#, B, F#, F, C, A, C#,E,F#.

As can be seen, the original tone row, it is built up of two major chords a tritone apart, and two minor chords a tritone apart. In this particular example the layering produces the first three notes of the row in the opening chord. What this allows the composer to do, is seamlessly shift harmonies in constantly surprising shifts in a way that is surprising, but always feels rather right.

Obviously, the above example is a mere introduction to the technique and O. Balakauskas himself was able to take the technique to really profound and wonderfully constructed ways. The best way to introduce someone to a musical technique is to show musical examples. Which brings us onto the Concerto for Oboe and Harpsichord. Written in 1981, this three movement concerto is one of his most conventional concerti. It is also one of his most approachable works. The interactions between the strings and the two soloists is lively and light-hearted. The second movement is a beautiful movement which sees the Harpsichord sitting back while the oboe sings its heart out. The final movement is highly rhythmical ending the concerto in a flourish. 

Information gathered from the followings sources:

Osvaldas Balakuaskas Profile, Music Information Centre: http://mic.lt/en/database/classical/composers/balakauskas/#bio

Osvaldas Balakauskas - Balakauskas: Concerto Brio for Violin and Chamber Orchestra/Ludus Modorum/Piano Concertino, BIS