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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.


<< read from the start of the diary

Friday 2 May

Walk to bus station to suss it out (we leave from there in a few days), then across the old town to the river, with a diversion up to the Gates of Dawn, a wonderful church straddling a street up the hill from the centre, a street full of fascinating churches, all different and all beautiful. Lunched at Loky's restaurant near the orchestra's offices, which comes highly recommended and rightly so. The evening concert (at six) went absolutely splendidly with everyone playing superbly -- though Donatas got himself wedged between his music stand and the back of the piano for the concerto (there was no sign of a problem in the performance). Then the British Ambassador, Jeremy Hill, and his wife Katie (who, it turns out, comes from a village only a few miles from where we live) hosted a splendid reception at their residence, attended by a number of notables including several composers (Balakauskas, Merkelys and Kutavicius among them, the latter unusual in not speaking much English but had plenty of German). The drive to the residence, which is a lovely house in the woods, reminded me of the drive to the dacha near the beginning of the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy though with less sinister consequences! It was an absolutely delightful occasion.

Saturday 3 May

Lunch at Donatas's flat, in the Composers' Union area, which has accommodation specifically for composers and musicologists. His wife, unfortunately, was not able to be with us, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless, and the highlight, introduced by Donatas with something of a flourish, was Verescékas, a soup with chunks of lamb in it, very tasty, especially when accompanied by red wine and then vodka, in the drinking of which we had a very precise lesson from Donatas. Apparently, with food, one takes a small amount of vodka and sort of folds it into the mouth, so the flavour of each is improved. So much for the British understanding that vodka had to be wolfed down in one go, though no doubt this is appropriate on other occasions. Sweet potatoes in their skins on the side added to the richness of the meal. After lunch, to which Donatas's poet son and the composer Balakauskas came, we listened to some excerpts from Lithuanian music, which certainly whetted my appetite -- there really is a massive amount of very good music here, very little of which gets through to the Western European music scene.

In the evening, Madoka had organised for us to go to the ballet, so I was unable to take up the free ticket for the National Philharmonic's concert, which turned up mysteriously in my hotel room -- I would like to have heard it. However, I'd never seen Minkus's Don Quixote (I always like to put the composer's name to ballets, since they so seldom get any credit), so wanted to see that, too. It turned out to be the final performance before closure of the theatre for renovation (when have I heard that before?), so there was a rather festive, end-of-term feeling about it. The orchestra, under Jonas Aleksa, played with plenty of spirit, though a score that is really only worth hearing once must be pretty boring to play many times, and the company danced pretty well -- the Japanese connection, and the reason for the tickets, was two young Japanese dancers in the romantic lead roles, Miki Hamanaka and Takasi Aoki, both of whom shone in the company and had plenty of character. The ballet itself seems to have precious little to do with Cervantes, the Don himself spending most of it stalking impressively about the stage, but the costumes and decor were colourful and entertaining. The theatre was very comfortable, too. Tamami and her husband Adrien Cotta (who had arrived in time for Friday's concert) had a splendid hot chocolate drink in the interval -- Madoka and I drank champagne, though not out of glass slippers.

Donatas Katkus (left) and John McCabe in a Vilnius restaurant. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta
Donatas Katkus (left) and John McCabe in a Vilnius restaurant. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta

Dinner was at the Russian restaurant again (Beef Stroganoff, this time, with another Snowfall in Winter) -- the music this time was provided by another very good folksinger, but now he had a (very loud) synthesizer, so we got the percussion, strings, choirs and anything else he could get to accompany his very skilful keyboard playing. Fortunately the songs now were very up-tempo, for the most part -- indeed, so infectious was the music that a large party of young Russians (I presume) began dancing vigorously, and quite a few other people joined in some of the numbers (I didn't, but only because my not dancing is less distressing than my dancing). Imagine a fairly small restaurant room, with tables fairly close together, and a dozen people exercising vigorously in and out around the furniture. It was all negotiated with great humour and not a little acrobatic skill -- nothing was broken.

Before coming out here, I gashed a finger lifting the suitcase (don't ask how, I don't know), but it is healing nicely and will I hope not be a problem when it comes to playing in Klaipeda and then Vilnius -- I'm deliberately not practising, to allow it to heal (I was absolutely prepared beforehand, anyway, partly because I imagined it might be difficult to get pianos a lot of the time). The day was boiling hot, but it rained in the evening, and Sunday was much colder, windy and damp.

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Copyright © 3 June 2003 John McCabe, Kent, UK



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