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In Spring 2003, British composer and pianist
JOHN McCABE made his first-ever trip to Lithuania,
for concerts and a recording with the
St Christopher Chamber Orchestra of Vilnius.
Here is a diary of his visit to this delightful country.


Wednesday 30 April 2003

Lithuanian Airlines: very good, nice snack lunch (salami, smoked ham, salad stuff, plus muffin), and no irritating music! Vilnius has a small, spartan airport, but quite friendly passport control. Met by Donatas Katkus and the Japanese-British pianist Tamami Honma (conductor and soloist respectively), checked into hotel (modern, open only three months, very comfortable), opened out case and took out suits etc. Then went for my first taste of Lithuania, a couple of beers and bowl of cold Lithuanian soup (beetroot, served with side plate of potatoes -- beetroot not my favourite vegetable, but this was delicious). Beer is very nice, too, a bit wheat-ish and a hint of sweetness. Good sleep afterwards. Found out the next day that Donatas's pocket had been picked -- he sat opposite me, his jacket hung over his chair, and when he paid a visit to the Gents, someone took his wallet, cleared out the money and returned the wallet to his pocket without any of us around the table noticing a thing.

Thursday 1 May

Went to get some Litas (local currency) -- it was May Day, so bank holiday, but managed to get some cash from a machine. My new Visa card (which is the only code I can remember) starts today, and I remember this happened once before with a card which didn't work (in a store, not a cash machine) -- this time it was all right, though. Walked round a bit and immediately fell for the city. The old town, which is where hotel, concert and recording are, is very beautiful and also very clean. Everything is within walking distance. Went to the same hostelry (pub or inn won't suffice as a description) for lunch: a Zeppelin (potato dumpling stuffed with meat -- very filling) and beer. Then to rehearsal, in the studio next to the offices of Donatas's St Christopher Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 1994 and has conducted ever since. At once felt very confident -- the string playing is marvellous, and the winds, who were joining the orchestra for the concerto sightread it quickly. Tamami had to rehearse on a very bad 'pub' piano in a corner, and could hardly see the conductor. It sounded, so far as I could tell, very good. There is a poster for the concert outside City Hall with two hitherto unknown items: Sonata on a Motel and Six-minute Syphony. (Note for young composers: make sure your titles avoid the obvious pitfalls!) Donatas said that at least they'd got my name right (which doesn't always happen back in the UK). There is a lot of music here, for a town of about half a million -- two full-time, and apparently very good, symphony orchestras, the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra and numerous other chamber ensembles, many recitals, opera and ballet. I'm not sure if there is a statue of Heifetz (who was born here), but there is one of Frank Zappa.

On Saturday, there is a concert of the National Philharmonic Orchestra in their hall, the Philharmonia (where our recording will be made), with Neil Thomson conducting Chopin and the Third Symphony of Elgar/Anthony'o Payne'o. Lithuanian is supposedly the oldest European language, and is fascinating (thirty-three letters in the alphabet, which is a bit frightening but in practice seems to me to simplify pronunciation somewhat). Dinner with Tamami and her friend Madoka Saji, an attaché at the Japanese Embassy with whom she is staying -- a splendid meal at a Russian restaurant accompanied by a Russian folksinger with unnecessarily amplified guitar -- he sang well, but the guitar was out of tune (we wondered if this was a gesture in the direction of authenticity), and the songs 90% lugubrious. Chicken Salad with red caviar, shared by the three of us, so not much caviar each, Veal pieces with red cherries and broccoli, and ice cream 'browned with "Snowfall in Winter"', which turned out to be ice cream surrounded by soft meringue and lightly browned. Tamami suggested Snowfall in Winter might be a good title for a piano piece ...

John McCabe. Photo © 1999 Peter Thompson
John McCabe. Photo © 1999 Peter Thompson

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Copyright © 27 May 2003 John McCabe, Kent, UK



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