Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jonas Švedas Festival

With the weather in Vilnius as volatile as it has been this month, I promptly came down with a cold. But the good news is that I got over it just in time for the Third International Jonas Švedas Festival of Folk Instrumental Music, which ran October 7-11. Though the term "international" usually implies a much larger group of countries and regions, the festival featured mainly folk instruments and performers from the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Some performances were accompanied by the National Lithuanian Philharmonic, and others were solo performances. And the primary venue of the festival, St. Catherine's Church, made for a visually beautiful (albeit acoustically wet) concert setting.

Without going into a detailed listing of all the performers (there is no longer a festival website, so I can't provide a link), I'll just say that each offered a unique contribution to the zither-heavy festival program. But here are a few examples.

Olga Shishkina (Russia) played a Shostakovich-inspired work by Sergei Oskolkov for gusli and orchestra one evening, and performed a few solo works another. Oksana Kuznetsova and Elena Vorontsova, two Belorussian dulcimerists (wikipedia confirmed that "dulcimerist" is a word), also performed with orchestra (Kuznetsova) and solo (Vorontsova).

Many festival participants played the kanklės, arguably the most iconic Lithuanian folk instrument, but Aistė Bružaitė deserves special mention. She played most of a concerto for kanklės and orchestra by Lithuanian composer Vaclovas Paketūras before her aggressively virtuosic playing fatally snapped a string on the delicate instrument, putting a halt to the rest of the performance. Two days later, after a restringing, she appeared in a duet performance with Jolita Sidorenkaitė (also on the kanklės).

However, my personal favorite of the festival was Irmantas Andriūnas (and I really wish he had a website), who gave an impressive performance on the birbynė. The birbynė is another important Lithuanian instrument (a contender with the kanklės for the title of "national instrument of Lithuania") that featured prominently in the festival, and Andriūnas played three birbynės of different sizes during his performance of Gervių šokiai (Dance of the Cranes), a 15-minute piece by composer Vytautas Germanavičius that includes extended techniques familiar to most saxophonists as well as some unique to the birbynė. I couldn't figure out how to make the podcast option work (any tips from more experienced bloggers would be appreciated), so here are the links to two audio clips of Andriūnas playing a soprano birbynė and a contrabass birbynė. More clips of this piece and works for other instruments are available from this link to Germanavičius' Compositions for Lithuanian National Instruments.

Most of the Lithuanian performers at the festival are students or teachers at the Academy, or else closely affiliated with the Academy, and frequently commission composers to write new works for their instrument. Given their willingness to work with composers, it would be interesting to sit down with one of them to learn more about his or her instrument- not just its traditional usage, but any extended techniques that may have developed in the last few decades.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lithuanian Composers Union

One of the many legacies of the Soviet Union in Lithuania is its socialist engineering of residential spaces. Images of rows of identical block apartment buildings aside, an interesting example of this type of planning in Vilnius is the Lithuanian Composers Union, situated in a quiet neighborhood west of the city center.

The LCU is the major hub for all Lithuanian composers and houses copies of every score, recording, and other publications by its past and current members. The building is also home to the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Center, the major promoter of all Lithuanian composers and performers, including popular and folk music. In addition to maintaining a comprehensive website dedicated to its artists, it publishes and rents scores, operates three Lithuanian record labels, and helps to organize major events, including this year's ISCM World Music Days.

Last week, I visited the LCU in hopes of finding some useful materials about Lithuanian music. Linas Paulauskis, the director of the LMIPC, is quiet but extremely helpful. Not only did he offer to connect me with a few possible librettists, but he did not hesitate to lend me scores (some of which were one of only two copies) and recordings of the most recent and, in some cases, unpublished Lithuanian music. For one unpublished and unperformed opera, I was given a photocopy of the manuscript and a recording of the composer himself singing all the vocal parts over a midi realization of the instrumental parts.

Getting back to the main point of this blog post, the most unique thing about the LCU is its surrounding neighborhood, which is made up of a collection modest rowhouses on quiet alleys branching off of the main street. It was in these houses that Lithuania's composers lived together in a relatively isolated artist community. Each of the houses bears a plaque indicating its former composer resident and the years of residence.

In addition to the rowhouses, there stands a much larger apartment building- at least 14 units- which housed no one but composers. Both Osvaldas Balakauskas and Feliksas Bajoras live there. It is hard to imagine a composer who would not have been influenced by his neighbor at some point.

And while today many Lithuanian composers have chosen to move elsewhere as their economic independence increases, at least half of all important composers in Lithuania live next to the Composers Union. It must have been quite an experience to develop alongside every other composer in Lithuania. Given this fact, the diversity among their works should be seen as evidence of extraordinary creativity in what otherwise might have been a compositional melting pot.