3 September 2016

Centones Meae Urbi - 60th Birthday Celebrations

New semester, new season, and a new collection of concerts for me to pass judgement at, and what a way to start the year than with a performance of Onute Narbutaite's immaculate Centones Meae Urbi (1997). This particularly seminal work, which draws texts from various different languages and sources based on their significance to Vilnius and Lithuania on the whole, was performed to celebrate the great composer's 60th birthday. 

In short Centones Meae Urbi is an intriguing work that is almost the perfect manifestation of Lithuania's collectives desires around the turn of last century. Searching for a way to come to terms with the highs and lows of its past as well as creating a sense of optimism that things can evolve into something greater. In the same way the Messiah came to define our understanding of the King James translation of the Bible, Centones Meae Urbi defines the sensibilities and desires of the 'modern Lithuania', that through its understanding of the past aims to define the present in a completely Lithuanian manner. The work draws upon texts by Czelaw Milosz, Joanes Bilducius, Adam Mickiewicz, Moshe Kulbak, Petri Strzelec, and Mathias Casimirus Sarbievius, to name but a few. These texts in turn are in Polish, Lithuanian, Latin, and Yiddish, all languages which have had strong traditions and connections to the region at large and very much define the cultural landscape of the area. The structure of the oratorio is shaped around the seasons, with each season defining a mood and intuition connected with the language or text involved. The whole work is a masterpiece, and to be honest I am extremely surprised it doesn't have a deeper footing in the locally performed repertoire considering its striking significance. 

Anyways back to the concert at hand, the serene Franciscan Church is a beautiful mismatched collage of ancient architecture and sporadic modernisations. The perfect setting for this oratorio. The atmosphere was buzzing with murmuring and chitter-chatter that was beyond eager for tonight's performance. The seats were overflowing with audience members resorting to standing at the back, or closing up like sardines on the benches. Then a slow hush descended on everyone and the performance was about to begin. 

The work starts with a lone Birbyne (a glorious Lithuanian folk instrument),the sound is hypnotic and just rings in the space. It strikes everyone with a powerful pastoral vigour. The soloist, Egidijus Alisauskas performs it beautifully and with mastery. This serenity is decimated by the heraldry of the brass. Their blaring chords resonating and filling the space with brilliance. The real sensation of the oratorio really begins to come together with all the voices present. In passages like the Processional or Spring at Lukiskes are performed perfectly by Aidija chamber choir and Jauna Muzika. Their diction was always strong, and full of focus. During the passages of fast, rhythmic, or melismatic passages meant their brilliance began to falter but this never really detracted from the impact of the music itself. 

Despite being close to 90 minutes of nonstop performing, the orchestra is used surprisingly sparsely. Meaning whenever it makes an appearance it is striking. Narbutaite's personal majesty and mastery of orchestration really comes to the fore in this oratorio, be it bringing the ensemble to crashing climaxes or disintegrating the orchestra down to solo instruments, it is always crafted beautifully and profoundly. On the whole, the orchestra was more than up to the task, but some sections precision began to wane slightly, particularly in sections that Robertas Servenikas took surprisingly slowly. During these moments the intent is often questionable as it regularly took the steam out of the piece. I think if he were braver, and allowed the ensemble to really let rip, the concert could have literally blown the roof off of the church. 

The three vocal soloists were on the whole very good. The soprano (Ieva Gaidamanviciute) and bass-baritone (Nerijus Masevicius) had amazing qualities within their voices, be it Ieva's naturally spritely nature in her voice or Nerijus's rich chocolatey voice, but sadly both lost their magnificence singing in higher registers. Making their solos at time rather limp. Egle Sidlauskaite, the mezzo-soprano soloist, was a pure and consistent joy to listen to. Be it the sheer ability to hold her own in such dense and magnificent orchestration or to hold a profound stillness, she accomplished it with prowess and skill. Egle was a wonderful treat to listen to and definitely showed her artistry with this oratorio. 

The end of the oratorio for me really summed up the mood and importance of this work. The male voices slowly left in a resounding procession, the mezzo relayed ideas and interacted with the group as they abandoned the hall. Then out of the ghostly distant voices, came strings, giving this joyous richness to place the soloist on a pedestal, before slowly fading as bells begin to appear. Like a new dawn on a Sunday, the bells keep growing, increasing in volume and intensity but suddenly releasing the audience into a eerie silence. And almost collectively from this silence, the audience were up out of their chairs clapping manically and in such ecstasy after what they have just heard. Now I cannot say what it is about this work, but there is something truly profound in this work that manages to resonate with the audience here. Maybe there is just something profoundly and impeccably Lithuanian about this work, that it creates such nostalgia and beauty that is akin to returning home. Who can say for sure, all I know is, despite some of my misgivings about the minute details of the performance, the work still manages to hit you hard, and that is why it is singularly one of the most important works by this magnificent composer. 

For those unable to attend, here are some excerpts from Youtube. So until next time, enjoy!

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