24 March 2017

Santa Ratniece - Piano Concerto

Another week has passed and I have managed to absorb more Latvian music. This time I am looking at something far more recent. Its not very often you hear a piece and are simply dumbfounded by it, this ultimately becomes rarer the longer you work within contemporary music; the more you know the harder it is to be surprised. But this being said, today's composer is definitely a joyous surprise.

Born in 1977, Santa Ratniece, like many Latvians, worked her way through the Jazep Vitols Music Academy in Riga. After her studies there, she studied with David Rowland in Holland, then finally studying with Helena Tulve in Tallinn. She has ultimately done what is now very common practice within the Baltic, internationalising yourself by travelling to where you want to grow and to be able to throw yourself deep into the world of other composers and musics. Already Santa has seen some wonderful international success having won the UNESCO International Composers Rostrum in 2004 and working with ensembles across the globe, including the Kronos Quartet. 
Her music is extremely hard to define, but does stand to emulate what many composers in the Baltic are striving for these days. A music drawing on modern colours and gestures but still somehow deeply connected to the past, or at least never totally throwing it away. The result, especially in Santa's case is just divine. 

The particular work I want to focus on is her piano concerto, written in 2014 and premiered by the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra, with Vestard Shimkus as the soloist. Opening with a slow gathering shimmer of whistles, voices enter slowly providing a glistening backdrop for the soloist to pronounce himself. The texture is incredibly fragile, but just strong enough to allow the pianist to really explore the gorgeous harmonies. The building landscape is simply seductive and dizzying. You can feel yourself being sucked into this world and just being consumed by its dazzling splendour. The texture always evolves allowing different instruments to discuss with the soloist who is always dictating and discussing ideas with the orchestra. The sensation feels weirdly democratic, with every voice of the orchestra having a real influence in the musical discourse, as well as becoming part of the backdrop to support the soloist and the other instrument interacting with them. 

As the work progresses, the piano lines become more and more flamboyant, but never feel like virtuosic showing off. But eventually leads to a moment of crystalline calm. Where the piano is left with just percussion instruments. The moment slowly builds to an almost cadenza-like passage, or even a recitative, with the percussion simply laying a music framework to respond to. The passage is extremely extended, but is mystifying. Then as if the weather was changing, all of a sudden the full orchestra return, rolling in. Like a slowly rising flood, the orchestra builds, and grows, but somehow the soloist stays afloat. Despite the growing strength and might of the orchestra, the sensation always feels powerful, but never violent. Then when you think the soloist is going to be completely consumed, the orchestra disappears like a breeze. 

The concluding moments are just as magical as the rest of the concerto. It is a curious sensation, you feel like you have gone on a massive journey; but equally feel like you have stayed put the entire time. Almost like an outer body experience, or a rather peaceful LSD trip. The glistening colours and beauty of it all, while staying in a very familiar territory. The work could have a parallel drawn between it and Faure's Requiem. Requiem's traditional instill all the powers of fire and brimstone gospel, but Faure managed to simply meditate on the idea of life and death. What Santa Ratniece has done in her piano concerto, is taken a form which usually demands a 'conflict' or at least some virtuosic magic, and replaced it with a musical platform for the soloist to just be. Allowing the soloist and the listener to consider many angles and viewpoints, consider different ideas, but never becoming threatened or chastised in anyway. But merely allowing yourself to grow with your ideas and finding the real strength, majesty, and power within such a modest approach. I am simply dumbfounded. Anything I say now is just repeating myself nonsensically, so all I suggest is have a listen for yourself. 

18 March 2017

Adolfs Skulte - Symphony No. 5

After a few weeks to gather myself, I am finally in a position to start excitably wittering about new discoveries I made during my 24 hours in Riga. So I ultimately wanted to start with a rather wonderfully hidden gem from the generation that worked almost entirely during the Soviet Era. Adolfs Skulte (1909-2000) stands as a rather significant figure within the Latvian classical tradition, one due to writing a rather prolific body of work, but also due to the sheer weight and magnitude of his orchestral works.

A pupil of Jazep Vitols (1863-1948), Skulte's musical language is an obvious continuation of his tutor, as well as tapping into the influence of composers like Arthur Honnegger or Karol Szymanowski. Skulte's symphonies stand as a significant body of his overall orchestral output, having produced a total of nine symphonies (the curse caught another great). Despite the obvious connection to romanticism, Skulte's music has a richness which keeps it sounding vivid and colourful. The connections to 'tradition' are never the result of 'conservatism' or purely the result of Soviet influences, listening to his music, it is apparent, the connection to the past merely builds Skulte a foundation to grow from.

As Adolfs Skulte was born the generation he was, he was ultimately composing for the majority of his lifetime during the Soviet era. Which for many, especially during the years immediately after the Second World War, meant treading carefully to avoid censorship or harsher consequences. Skulte's first symphony was definitively a work to keep himself in a kinder light, with its 'personable' title for peace. Despite the strengths and weaknesses of the work, it did show Skulte had a wonderful knack for writing 'his' music as well as adapting it enough to allow him to function despite the censorship. This adeptness lead Skulte winning multiple prizes including the U.S.S.R State Prize as well as achieving the title of 'People's Artist of Latvian S.S.R'. Now it can be argued that this was selling out, or just getting cosy with the Soviets. But the reality is, these were hoops composers had to jump through, not necessarily because any slight shift out of line was instant death and suffering for each individual artist, but more if you wanted to work as a composer these were the things you needed to do. It could be argued now with composers working in the free market, are having to sell out or become good promoters just so they can work. There are ultimately harsh realities wherever you are working, and hopefully those sacrifices pay off. In the case of Adolfs Skulte it did.

By 1970, as Skulte had an impeccable record,which meant he was completely free to composer whatever he wanted. This combined with Gorbachev's supposed 'Socialism with a human face', granted many freedoms to artists which ultimately lead to Skulte reaching a truly profound moment within his own music. This 'last' period of the composer shows him really striding with a real swagger. The fifth symphony is the first work of this period, and it really shows him in a fantastic light.

The three movement work, has the connection to traditional symphonic forms, but is extended with a fantastical and beautiful brutality. The opening Lento is calm, slowly biding its time, building, growing, and making profound use of its darkness. The orchestral palette is vast and really shows a composer throwing everything he has now he has the freedom to do so. The gorgeous melodic sweeps in the strings juxtaposed against dark monolithic chords in the brass makes the experience intensive. Parallels to Honnegger are particularly accurate, the similarities between this symphony and Honnegger's Symphonie Liturgique are there, but never in a pastiche manner.

The Allegro con brio flies. There is no other word for it. The sheer energy and drive in the work never really stops. Its a surprise the conductor doesn't get a stitch or repetitive strain from this fly by. However it does end in probably the cheekiest manner you could imagine.

The finale, Lento - Vivo, is rich and powerful. It stands as the largest movement of the work, but could also be seen as two movement rammed together as the conductor noted that the Lento and Vivo should be played without interruption. This second Lento starts with a glorious haze of colour. The build up of the chord is reminiscent of Berg's violin concerto, but in its own manner is equally thick and yummy; like truly masterful hot chocolate. The saxophone solo is haunting and just divine. The build up is intense and just glorious things for the ears to bear witness to. The moment the tubular bell strikes is magnificent and the responding harmonies just stun me. The Vivo starts in a fugal manner, with voices entering one by one, and like the Allegro con brio they fly. Skulte has a magnificent ability at writing fast music, an art which has disappeared in the last century. The finale has a real sensation of a rondo form, with its returning segments and the way the movement elegantly dances between them all is simply masterful. And the recapitulation of the melody at the climax of the movement is as glorious as it is terrifying.

The symphony is simply magnificent, there is no question. The sheer breadth and magnitude within one symphonic work is astounding, let alone the other eight symphonies. This is a composer who simply needs to be heard more. Enjoy the symphony below!

11 March 2017

Algirdas Martinaitis - Birds of Eden

As today marks 27 years since the Lithuania separated from the Soviet Union, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to focus on a Lithuanian composer I haven't had the chance to mention yet. Admittedly this also gives me more time to digest the pile of recordings I gathered while in Riga, so win win for me, and Latvian composers will be mentioned soon; I promise. Because of the seismic importance of the event, I thought it was necessary to discuss a figure composing around the time of the split and to mildly highlight the local desires of the people vying for nationhood. 

Algirdas Martinaitis (1950*) feels like a suitable person to mention within this framework. A pupil of Eduardas Balsys, Martinaitis came to prominence rather quickly after graduating from his studies at the end of the 1970s. Like his fellow 'neo-romantics', his music is obsessed with nostalgia, namely in the form of pining for something lost, rather than thinking 'weren't things better in the good ol' days'. This led him to build a rather curious personal musical landscape. The ability to have music with the deepest sincerity then to smash it with boisterous sarcasm or even sheer vulgarity, makes his music rather surprising. My first encounter with the composer was hearing his Serenade for Miss Europe which in its brief extent as a piece, shamelessly and hilariously quotes and smashes European classics into the listener's ear in the most inane or crude manner possible. It is an occasion which has stuck with me to this day.

The piece I wanted to focus on today, is a significantly shorter work; Birds of Eden (1981) for cello and tape. The work stands as one of the composer's most seminal pieces and clearly demonstrates a lot of thinking in the wider society at the time. A work with a title of Birds of Eden is extremely typical of a romantic composer, with its reflection of nature and pastoral ponderings; but the use of electronics instantly distorts and challenges this. Mostly on the basic level that there is no 'life' in electronics. Electronic music is the result of machines, so how can it artistically reflect wildlife? This simple gesture of instrumentation, throws up a lot of ideological posturing, which I am sure is intentional on the composer's half. The lack of life in the electronics combined with the nostalgic or just sheer romanticism of nature in the title can easily be a heavy handed gesture mourning the loss of something inherently native. 

The music itself is as hypnotic as it is energised. The cello lilts on melodic figures which are reminiscent of bird song, which in turn are layered on itself over and over again. The result is a rather magical dialogue between many birds. The electronics serve an interesting but very clear function within this piece, the use of electronic, or natural, noise subverts the musicality; functioning as a dissonance to destabilise the natural proceedings of life. The to and fro between the natural sounds of the cello and the electronics produces a fascinating dialogue. The repetitive nature of the melodic fragments adds to the intensity, it is almost as if the birds themselves are trapped within the machine, with nothing in their power except to keep singing. The short piece, lasting about 8 minutes, really builds a lot of ground and potential of presenting many ideological ideas; which cannot be surprising when you consider the piece was written in the last decade of the Soviet Union's control of the region. 

This being said, this could all just be me romanticising the romantic. The piece on a purely musical level is just as fascinating and really should be in the solo cello repertoire. It is intense and powerful but just allows you to digest its gesturing and elegance. It is definitely one of the composer's finest works. Many of his works play around with romantic ideals of nature as well as contemplating tradition; and almost every single time his responses to these always challenge me on some level. This could be on the sheer musical level, on the dramatic level, or on the more ephemeral levels of ideology. 

All that is left to do is listen to the piece and decide for yourself. 

3 March 2017

Kurybos tiltai - Tada, Dabar

This evening was my first concert in Vilnius in quite some time and boy was it an intriguing event. In short, the concert was a performance of all the composers within the third year of undergraduate studies. However, the intriguing catch was the inclusion of pieces by them from either at the beginning or just before they started studying within the Academy. Its a particularly brave gesture as logic would dictate, the younger works would be naive, and relying mostly on the potential of the composer more than necessarily base craftmanship at that point. Having these works paired with newer pieces is interesting, as it instantly and very clearly depicts their trajectory and development as composers. 

The four 'early' works by the four composers were very characteristic of young applicants, mostly owing a lot to the music they themselves performed with some personal twists added into the mix. All four pieces really showed the potential the staff in the academy saw, and in that light were charming and interesting works. I won't go into depth on these pieces, mostly because there's a fine line between criticism and harrassing teenagers. However, the one piece out of the group was Jura Elena Sedyte's Azuolelis (2014) as it shows a composer who has thrown caution to the wind and just wants to explore. So it definitely had the most character without question.

The second half of the concert was built up of purely newer works. Starting with an electronic piece by Goda Marija Guzauskaite called Makabriskos atostogos (2014). The electronics were generally quite simple, but the necessity for them was apparrant quite quickly. The manic piano sounds were extremely reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow, especially his cheekier pieces like his Boogie Woogie Suite. However in contrast, this work was far more minimalistic in tone too, baring a huge resemblence to works by Rytis Mazulis. The form was clear, but I felt that more could have been done with the electronics in someway, mostly to avoid the piece just being a matter of fact.

The following piece RVCNYP (2017) by Aleksej Kalinin for mixed ensemble of flute, piano, electric guitar, cello, and voice. The work was instantly more 'experimental' with its raw potent use of distortion and crunchy piano sounds. The work shows Aleksej is still exploring and finding his feet, which is a noble and worthwhile task indeed, and he has definitely come on a long way. However, some elements really need to devloped, namely the more 'peaceful' gestures were often very naive tonal harmonies which made the whole performance feel more like a naff prog-rock jam session instead of some hardcore experimental happening. I also felt the flute was just a tad tame in it. I imagine if there was a screaming piccolo flying above the chaos or a bass flute smashing out some juicy multiphonics it would be a more striking use of flute. A big nod has to be handed to the singer Dalia Krapavicikaite who, despite the devilish and terrifying nature of the vocal part within its surroundings, managed to perform it with great precision and control.

Then something more modest followed. Vilte Zakeviciute's Laumiu suvartai (2017) for two accordions was a fascinating filler and departure from her surroundings. The two accordionists proudly walked out, and after some confused shuffling from stage manangement, sat and performed quite a remarkable duo. The work had a crystalline clarity and every gesture felt necessary and purposeful. The overall effect was an almost symphonic piece for an underused instrumental combination. She managed to avoid many cliches of the instrument, and just quietly stated her point. The interplay of ideas was curious and charming, the lively sections were full of bustling potential and the still segments were able to sit calmly allowing everyone to breath. It was simply remarkable, bravo Vilte, and bravi Raimonds Ungurs and Agne Rimgailaite who gave such a well delivered premiere.

After some more shuffling came a larger work by Jura Elena Sedyte. Unlike her compatriots, there was not the same drastic distance between her piece in the first half and her new work. Somnus de Somno (2017) for vocal trio, piano, and electric guitar was in a similar, but more elaborate vein of thought as her earlier Azuolelis. The use of extended techniques, and vocal gestures shows a composer still eager to explore the whole world of sound available to her. With her greater understanding, the musical gestures had a greater sense of dramatic intent, as opposed to just sounding 'edgy'. The vocal writing was extensive, and to be honest was always strongest when it was to the extreme end of vocal sounds. The 'chorale' section felt a bit lackluster, mostly because it did not have the same profundity in construction as her experimental gestures, but the constrast was striking. As a composer she is definitely growing, and I would love her to continue pushing the boat out, and really throwing caution to the wind. 

The finale came in the form of an even newer electronic work by Goda Marija GuzauskaiteGarso Link (2017), was an interesting interplay of instrumental sounds, flowing freely within the playground that is electronic sound. The architecture was solid, and has been in all of the works we heard this evening by Goda, she is quite naturally built for these kinds of things. The musicality was also at its strongest in this piece I felt, but for me the issue lies in the fact there is so much further you can go with electronics, and Goda really needs to dive head first into this cavern to truly make the most of it. There is no question of her knowledge of capabilities, she just simply needs to jump into it, and then she'll be writing truly astounding things.

The concert was a lovely event indeed. My two favourites which stood out for me were Vilte's Laumiu suvartai and Jura's Somnus de Somno. Both Aleksej and Goda are really developing indeed, and it is only a matter of time I imagine before the write something which truly stuns me. I feel an extra nod needs to go out to Dalia Krapavickaite for her wonderful performing, out of all the performers this evening she was definitely thrown the deepest down the well and she evidently took it in her stride. A truly glorious perform indeed. All of them, except Vilte, are on soundcloud, I definitely recommend you have a listen for yourselves.

*The whole concert can be heard here: