26 March 2016

Music in 17th Century Lithuania

Something I have personally been keen to investigate is what on earth was happening in Lithuania before it gained independence from the Russian empire around the beginning of the 20th Century. Most history books discussing composers from Lithuanian and other Baltic composers never explore music before the 20th Century, with the exception of the nations folk heritage. The grand narrative of music throughout Europe, would give the sensation that Baltic music was merely primitive music in comparison to Western European nations like Austria, France, Germany and so on. For a long time I have had many issues with this kind of narrative, especially when large empires throughout history would have had their own elegant cultures; take art in the Ottoman empire as an example, it doesn't fit the European narrative, but is by no means primitive.

For those who aren't aware of Eastern European history, from 1569 to 1795 Lithuania was in a social and political union with Poland. During this time, the size of the joint Duchy became one of the largest nations in Europe. A victorious and expanding nation will of course enjoy rich culture, mostly to spread it across its lands to bring the new members into their ideals. So what on earth was this culture?

Finding this out is easier said than done. Due to constant seismic shifts in regions across Eastern Europe over the past 250 years, many materials are lost, destroyed or merely misplaced. Because of these shifts manuscripts from Lithuania's history are all over the place. Many of these manuscripts ended up in Poland, Russia, and Italy. For those reading, I can imagine Lithuanian manuscripts ending up in Italy quite surprising, but due to Lithuania's longstanding Catholicism, many manuscripts ended up in the ancient archives. This instability really shows how luxurious British history has been, having not been invaded successfully since 1066, protecting manuscripts has been pretty straightforward, with the exception of Henry VIII's little paddy with the Catholics.

All this being said, there are still some wonderful discoveries. Two manuscripts that I have recently got to know lightly is the Sapieha Book and the Kraziai Organist's notebook. Both of these manuscripts give a very small insight into the musical landscape around the 17th Century. Admittedly most of my knowledge on this has come from a wonderful recording of excerpts from these two books.

The Sapieha Book written circa 1626 is named after the noble family Sapiehas, and the manuscripts bare the coat-of-arms of the family. The music in the book show the musical landscape, in the nobility, had similar characteristics and concerns as the rest of Europe at the time. But one wonderful curiosity is noticeable. Despite the featuring of a few names like Girolamo Frescobaldi, and a mysterious F.L., there is a significant number of anonymous works which give a hint of the perception of composer in the region during this time. Namely the idea that the composer's name isn't important. It is believed that, particularly with religious works, composers in the region at the time believed the work to be more important than the composer, which is a wonderful debate that has only been opened up in Western Europe by Cage and Scelsi. The Kraziai Organist's notebook is a book which teaches musicians to gain professional mastery. The work is full of experiments and ideals apparent across Europe, like basso continuo, ornamentation, and the art of improvisation. The notebook is also full of little exercises with harmony and other similar tasks.

These two books are a rare wonderful gem in discovering the effects of Catholicism on Lithuania as well as the interaction between the Grand Duchy and the rest of the world. The wonderful recording by Schola Gregoriana Vilnensis is a wonderful discovery. Hopefully I will see the manuscripts soon.

Enjoy these gems from the CD:

21 March 2016

Melos kamerinis moteru choras: Debut and concert of new religious works

Last night in a whimsically chilly church. Melos kamerinis moteru choras gave their official Lithuanian debut, performing works of living composers, focusing mostly on text in relation to Palm Sunday. The twelve piece choir, accompanied by solo instruments in certain pieces gave, in short, an extremely strong first step into the wild.

The concert started with a work by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis. The work Praeludium for voices and piano rolled along gently, with subtle swaying of harmonic development which underpinned a rich chorale. The circling motifs were extremely confident and the choir gave a wonderfully well blended sound throughout. The confidence in the false relations was strong, always giving the impression the choir were in supreme control.

The first of many premieres in the concert was the young Matas Drukteinis. His setting of the sanctus was quite commanding and striking, but also very modest. The nuanced repetitions of sanctus made the work sound almost ritualistic. These punchy gestures were set against by very still rich chords in the whole choir. The harmonic language was really moving but I felt the counterpoint fell apart in the still moments. The use of cello was very subtle and gave the whole piece a very strong base to bounce off from. The work in general was good, but I am curious to hear something more extreme from Matas, I have the impression modest music is not his own cup of tea and just wants to be let loose. I recommend you check out more of his work on Soundcloud.

The next work was by Monika Sokaite, for those who have read previous posts, know I wasn't sold on her recent piece for voice and piano. This being said I didn't let that previous thought cloud my listening of this new work by her. Lavabo Me (from Psalm 25) was described in her programme notes as a polyphonic work using techniques associated with the prolation canon. I always smile a bit when composers resort to older forms like prolation canon or organum, because there is so much joy and wonder in them. The piece started with an almost processional line from the sopranos flowing around beautifully and supported by a slow moving harmonic base. The harmony and voicing was strong and is was a good piece demonstrating choral music is a personal forte. I found after a while the drifting melodic line got a bit lost and so sense of direction disappeared and ultimately felt lackluster. A think with a bit more study of Ockeghem and Mazulis she has the potential of producing some really nice music inspired by ancient forms and ideas. I said this last time I reviewed her, I'll say it again; listen to her works here on Soundcloud.

After some shuffling from the choir came the music of the Polish composer Monika Szpyrka. adHuc was a piece that focused on very minute details and raw elements of the voice. Starting with growing rustlings and stutters which are set against varied breathing. The contrast and orchestration of the gestures was contrapuntally and creatively very strong. The evolution of timbre was handled in an extremely classy nature, giving the sensation the Monika is her element and her moment. The piece, especially compared to the predeceasing work was definitely like going from chalk to cheese. adHuc was always moving, always evolving and gripping the listener. It was by far one of the strongest works of the night and the most sophisticated works for unaccompanied choir I have heard in a while. I am definitely hunting to hear more from this gem! When you listen to her music here on Soundcloud, I hope you will agree with me. 

After this work came Mantvydas Pranulis's In Finem for trumpet and choir. The solitary opening from the trumpet resounded in the church beautiful and definitely had a similarly spiritual sensation. The choir entered and the interaction with them and the trumpet (played by the composer) was often very strong and well nuanced. Harmonically it had a similar sensation to Holst which was an odd surprise to hear from a Lithuania, but still a pleasant one all the same. The work in general was very strong, but towards the end the trumpet gestures became more akin to the jazzy characters from Aristocats than one of the seven trumpets at the end of time. Have a listen to his work here.

Next came the Aberdeenshire based Yank Sarah Rimkus, a student of Paul Mealor and the descendant of a Lithuanian. Her piece O Vos Omnes was very modest and still. Focusing heavily on open fifths and other wide chords. The stillness is treated very well, at times I felt the sopranos were a bit underwhelming in this. The piece did feel heavily influenced by her tutor but thankfully the influence wasn't so dominating that it felt like her music was mere pastiche. I also found many similarities between the work and the middle sections of John Taverner's Ikon of Light where notes just hang in space resonating freely. A nice piece, I'll be intrigued to see how she develops. See her music here on Soundcloud.

The penultimate work came from the Welsh composer Nathan James Dearden. The piece O Crux Ave was set for double choir, with members stood opposite each other. The still modest opening hit me instantly, a calmly brilliant gesture which was the seed of growth in the piece. The counterpoint between each group and across groups was extremely well handled and always felt purposeful and necessary. The Qui passus es pro nobis... was strong and pulsing like a mantra that resonated beautifully in the church. The whole piece struck me to the core and instantly I can tell this one of Nathan's strongest pieces to date. The work was bold and modest, well crafted and elegant, and ultimately sincere. If he carries on like this Wales has a bright future with Nathan as a champion of his generation. Enjoy his works here on Soundcloud.

The finale was the perfect finale piece. Juta Pranulyte, the Glasgow based Lithuanian, presented one of the greatest pieces of the night. Christe Qui Lux for alto saxophone and choir was a beautiful meditation which at times had the same striking mesmerisation as Feldman's Rothko Chapel and Toivo Tulev's Songs. Notes hung in space and disappeared into the space like clouds forming and unforming or rain droplets falling into a river. The work organically and seamlessly grew from the saxophone, at one point it strayed dangerous close to Lux Aeterna by Ligeti, but managed to break away before it got cornered. As the work progressed, the sound grew and the church itself felt like it was resonating with the choir in one harmonious gesture. Christe Qui Lux is definitely the strongest piece I have heard from the composer, may the good work continue. Listen for yourself on Soundcloud.

Melos Choir, under the combined direction of Jolita Vaitkeviciene and Dalia Krapavickaite, achieved a strong and very promising debut. As a whole, for me the strength of the choir hung in the lowest altos who were a strong foundation for the choir to build upon. The middle voices were well blended and well toned, but at times I felt their dynamic was weaker than it should be; the most important music is often in the middle, not the top or bottom. The top sopranos on the whole were strong, but I felt at times that there were blockages stopping the higher registers just pinging round the church like a ray of light. The stamina of the choir needs to be addressed, but to be honest the temperature in the church will have had considerable effect on it all. The two conductors were strong and focused. Jolita Vaitkeviciene was by far the superior conductor in my mind, but that is mostly due to age and experience, the subtle controlled gestures were always elegant and necessary. Dalia Krapavickaite has a bright future a conductor, but I am curious to see how she would interpret a classic piece.

The choir have to be commended on such a strong debut, especially as the debut was filled with world premieres. With hard work, dedication, and the same element of daring who knows they could challenge Jauna Muzika for superiority. 

18 March 2016

Vidmantas Bartulis: Bolero Pavane Lachrimae

This week I thought it would be fun to look back at a work I discovered long before I moved to Vilnius. Bolero Pavane Lachrimae by Vidmantas Bartulis, I first heard performed in Cardiff in a concert given by the St. Christopher's Orchestra. The concert was part of the Vale of Glamorgan festival that year and the festival is what opened my eyes to the many wonderful composers here in Lithuania.

Vidmantas Bartulis (1954) is quite a curious figure. Often labelled as 'neo-romantic', Bartulis is more than just a conservative composer trying to bring back old traditions. His output can be compared to the likes of Alfred Schnittke with the clever use of polystylism, but also the desire to tackle tradition head on and see what can this tradition bring. In works like 'I Like F. Chopin' and other works in his 'I Like..' series, Bartulis draws on his favourite music like a springboard to jump from into something new, but still deeply connected to his love of music.

In the work Bolero Pavane Lachrimae Bartulis draws on musical ideas from the Lachrimae Pavane by Dowland, mostly the shifts of harmony. The work is quite detached from Dowland  but still holds its gut wrenching quality. The opening stabs are intensive and brutal, made more dramatic by their irregularity. The entrance of the cello is filled with sadness and beauty, before it steps back and the brutal attacks return. 

The main focus of the first movement is heralded by the pulsing chords which underpin the cello obligato. This section is quickly followed by another fragment with the cellist singing above a pulsing percussive line in the violins. Like many sections of the piece, the moment passing quite quickly into a new moving material.

Suddenly the piece explodes into life, with tremolandi in the orchestra. The violence and drama is reminiscent of the opening but is continuous and the soloist flies over it and fights against it all. The drive never seems to end and the cellist fights valiantly on. Before suddenly returning to original progression, like a rushed and relieving return home. The end of the first movement sees the cellist acting as percussion and colour on top of the beautiful melancholic chorale in the orchestra.

The second movement, opens with a beautiful chorale. Setting the scene for a beautiful conclusion, before the cellists return. The sumptuous line of the cello is just a wonderful moment and still strikes me, even after 3 years of listening to it. The movement progresses and eventually draws to a close, fading into nothing. Here is a recording on Youtube:

This was the first piece that drew me to the work of Vidmantas Bartulis, and I have yet to be disappointed by his work. I hope you all enjoy and I will see you next time.

11 March 2016

Diana Cemeryte: Still

This week I am going to introduce a truly wonderful composer. Diana Cemeryte is a wonderful discovery I have made since I moved to Vilnius. A composer whose music is just wonderfully still and hypnotic. A student of Teistutis Makacinas, Rytis Mazulis, and Osvaldas Balakauskas Diana currently resides in Frankfurt.

Due to her study of gregorian chant and desire to not 'chatter' her music is extremely austere. The austerity is not a coldness or lack of sensation, but a chilled beauty like a singular snowflake. A snowflake is quite a wonderful comparison as the stillness is not just an empty space. In composers like Morton Feldman the stillness is frozen music moving extremely slowly, whereas in Anton Webern and Diana Cemeryte the stillness is extremely and elegantly layered. The fixation on gregorian chant and early polyphony means her work flows and moves seamlessly from space to space.

The music draws you in and forces you to focus on a singularity. As soon as you do this, you see how complex and sophisticated the construction is; like zooming in on a snowflake you see the symmetry, the skilled and perfect construction which was invisible from a distance.

The piece that first drew me into her astounding work was Still (2004) for solo piano. A work which in its seven minutes takes you away to something distant and profoundly mystical. The opening is intensely quiet, with lines bouncing around the highest reaches of the instrument. Notes hang in the air as the counterpoint thickens. Despite being so still and silent, the listener is frozen in place. You slowly begin to pick out small instances of the harmonic language, but due to the sparsity and modesty of it all these hints fall into insignificance. The flowing lines steadily pick up momentum and you gain the sensation of a rippling energy under the surface, like a river flowing under the ice.

The sensation of form has disintegrated in this piece, this isn't to say there is no form in actuality the form ceases to matter. The 'climax' around the five minute mark is striking, almost startling, and you calmly return to the meditative stillness and just follow the work to its end. The piece flows, the moment arrives, the moment passes. Once its gone it never returns, hints of a past are dropped every so often, but you just sit and watch the world flow by; like a monk meditating. A thought arrives and a thought leaves.

Such an elegant work indeed, you can listen to it here on soundcloud. I will definitely be on the look out for more work from this stunning composer. 

5 March 2016

Young composers in the Gothic Hall.

Last night I was involved in a concert of young composers from various walks of life recent graduates, masters, and bachelors students. The performance took place in the magical Gothic Hall in the Vilnius Art Academy. The concert was overflowing with people, to the point that often I was just outside listening to the pieces being performed.

The first piece was by Jurgis Jarasius. His work Acchor'deo was a reconstruction of a work by the same name. The original was composed for strings and electronics, the version we heard last night was purely electronic. The work focused on a sustained sounds which slowly circled itself. The work was nice and still and quite colourful. Nothing ground breaking but just a nice piece. My only query is why the string parts were only recreated with virtual instruments? With the infinite opportunities with electronics could the string lines be redo with whole new timbres we have never heard before? Just a question really. I'll be curious to compare to the original when I finally get a chance to listen to Zoom in 11. I recommend you have a look at Jurgis's Soundcloud to make your own discoveries about him.

Following this was Andrius Siurys. A composer who I have been able to watch grow and change for the past 2 years. The work last night Atspirties Taskas was for violin and piano, and ultimately a wonderful leap in Siurys's craft. The work was full of energy and violence, and Diemante Merkeviciute handled it all with power and grace. The focus on motivic development showed a greater skill in his construction, but I feel the harmonic potential was not quite tapped into fully. The violent chords were strong, but the still moments felt disconnected, the previous harmonies if used skillfully could have been the way to hold it all together. If he addresses harmony a bit more, mostly finding purpose in the choice of harmony, Andrius has a growing potential to become very potent. For those curious, check other recordings of him here on Soundcloud.

The third piece in the concert I had the pleasure of knowing extremely well because I was conducting it. Which adds the most curious twist I have had to deal with when writing any sort of review. Karolina Kapustaite's work Matrikacakra, draws on the imagery and philosophical stance of Chakras; namely certain areas of the body have a specific form of resonance and energy which is linked to all other sorts of resonances and energies throughout the universe. In Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism this is quite a fascinating topic, but many new age people have misappropriated it sadly. Anyways back to the piece. Matrikacakra was composed for a mixed quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. In its seven minutes the work shimmers and glistens. The sense of timing is wonderful, never rushed, new sounds drift in adding or taking away from the present texture. The piece is extremely strong, Karolina Kapustaite has a bright future ahead of her if she keeps producing wonderful works of this strength. The players in the ensemble were extremely solid and really brought the piece to life. And noone wants to hear about my conducting. I strongly recommend everyone to listen to Karolina's other works here.

The penultimate piece before the break was a string quartet by Marius Civilis. The work 
-mona- was very straight forward, the quartet moved as one, very close to one another, but not quite together in a collection of quite dissonant waves. The shape of the work was fine, if a bit laboured due to its predictability. The harmonic language was dull and tedious. The circling lines were a bit like Bartok's Music for String Percussion and Celeste and if my ear is correct its climax was almost identical. Sounding like Bartok can be great, but sadly in this piece it sounded more like Bartok was hammered on absinthe. The microtonal harmonies were unnecessary, or at least made little to no sense in the work. Its almost like he wanted to make sure he sounded 'modern'. Now don't get me wrong, works that treat the string quartet as one mass moving together can be extremely powerful look at Scelsi and Radulescu's fourth quartet, as well as sans pause by Rytis Mazulis. But they succeeded due to skillful craft. Once you take away the fact that the piece wasn't original what does it have left to stand on? I sadly couldn't find Marius Civilis on soundcloud, I would have given a link so you can make up your own mind on it all.

The final piece in the first half was a piano work by Kristupas Bubnelis called Plaktukai be fortepijono. The work was full of character and charm, the flowing lines of the piano were a lovely break from the previous piece. The piece at times I found mildly reminiscent of Georgs Pelecis's Concerto Bianco. The use of Balakauskas's trademark Dodekatonality was very heavy, even at times I found it to be a tad pastiche when suddenly from the free flowing lines to 'jazzy' chords. For such a young student is craft is very strong, I feel he just needs to step out into something more Bubnelis and less Balakauskas. I think if he came across composers like Peter Schat, Per Norgard, or Hans Abrahamsen would help broaden him and push into something very strong. Have a listen to his works here.

After the break was the work Bizonai by Monika Sokaite. The work opened with a simple circling of harmonies in the piano which served as a backdrop to the vocal melody. The team of Vaidrius Smilinskas and Paulius Pancekauskas was beyond remarkable. A beautiful voice like melted butter in the fluffiest baked potato, and a piano support which was strong and supportive allowing the singer to be brilliant. I was in awe. But the awe kind of ended with the quality of the performance, because the work did nothing and said nothing. Ultimately it was a blank sheet of paper which allowed the performers to craft it into something worth listening to. This song by no means compares to works like Erlkonig or  Die Doppelganger. Simplicity can be really profound just look at Howard Skempton or Arvo Part. But simplicity needs purpose and intent otherwise it is just naive or bland. This being said do have a listen to her music on Soundcloud, I am by no mean gospel.

Following this came a real highlight for me. Pradzioje Taskas - Pabaigoje Pradzia by Julis Aglinskas blew me away. The opening chord caught me like a rabbit in headlights. The stillness was beautiful and never let me go. It is obvious composers like Feldman are an influence, but it was by no means a pale imitation of him. The static chords and the chill of the harmonics on the piano just mesmerised. I really hope I get to hear this piece again! I definitely recommend you all see his recordings on Soundcloud.

The penultimate work of the whole concert was a charismatic little flute miniature by Vilte Zakeviciute. The piece Siaures vejo gusis was well crafted and full of character. A young student can take pride in the piece. I will be curious to see how she develops as a composer, there is something there.

The final piece, Isochronous by Dominykas Digimas was strong. The space was reminiscent of Georg Fredrich Haas's In Vain, waiting in the dark before things moved. The visual display was very hypnotic and Dominykas really made sure his music fitted the character of the visual elements. The sparse electronics were hypnotic and the saxophones were magical and full of evocative colours. The only issue I found was piece depended too much on the visual element. If we take opera, Mozart et al were lead by the visual and dramatic elements but the works are still well crafted. Cross-collaborations cannot transcend music, so the music needs to be as skillfully crafted as a 'traditional' concert piece. This being said, with a strong craft and the same kind of nuance and subtlety of composers like Eliane Radigue, Dominykas could be extremely profound. He just needs that extra push. I recommend people check him out on Soundcloud.

Until next time!