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
Tuesday 6 May
The original schedule was for recording on May 3-5, but because the Philharmonia was in use for the symphony concert on the third, we had to rearrange for May 4-6. Tamami and I had agreed to go to Klaipeda to play at the St Simkus Academy on the sixth, and I felt I had to fulfill my commitment, so missed the recording -- when I saw Donatas later in the week, he said they finished early ('You see, the composer wasn't around ...!'), and I gather it went extremely well. We travelled by bus (I nearly killed myself pulling my recalcitrant suitcase to the bus station), and it was interesting to see the countryside -- rolling and slightly hilly, though the highest point in Lithuania is apparently about 1000 feet. Plenty of birch and pine forests, and a lot of agricultural land and settlements -- quite a few pieces of land for sale, for people to build on (probably, in some cases, their summer homes). Very beautiful scenery, and very green -- when I flew back, I was reminded of it by looking down at West Kent / East Sussex.
On the drive to our accommodation we went through some town areas of poor housing, very much cheek-by-jowl stuff -- it made me understand those old images of Chagall's early paintings, and the pictures and stories of the poor ghetto areas. The accommodation was in a hostel, partly for students, partly for guests -- fairly basic but quite comfortable (a sofa-bed with the bedding in the compartment underneath, shower room, crockery, TV, with a kettle in the common room outside). We didn't have a lot of time for practising, but got through everything. Tamami played Bach (Bb Partita), Rameau, Beethoven (Op 31 No 3), and two of my pieces, including the one I wrote for her (Scrunch), and then I played my part of the programme -- since I'd been asked to play my own music but she had already played a couple of pieces, I decided to do my Haydn Variations plus pieces from my repertoire by David Matthews (Variations), Robert Saxton (Chacony for left hand), and Hoddinott (Third Sonata), and it all seemed to go pretty well. The piano was a white Steinway, not great but seemingly the best in Klaipeda -- they're trying to get a new one but fund-raising is hard work (as it is everywhere). After a boiling hot day again, the evening became very cool, and it remained cold from then onwards.
There was a certain amount of noise from a group of young secondary school kids who'd been brought in to the concert, but after the Bach, they were taken out again, and the rest of the music was attended to very carefully by a reasonable-sized audience. Our host, who had organised the event, was the composer Loreta Narvilaite, and we went out for dinner with her and another composer, Remigius Sileika, afterwards -- most enjoyable.
Wednesday 7 May
This afternoon's schedule being pretty crowded, Loreta took us sight-seeing, around the town and down to the waterfront to look over the lagoon towards the Neringa peninsula, made entirely from sand dunes which have gradually solidified and provide a lengthy holiday and beach park, virtually the whole length of the Lithuanian shoreline.
John McCabe and Tamami Honma in Klaipeda Market Square. During the German occupation, Klaipeda was known as Memeris (a seaside resort for the Germans) where Hitler gave various speeches from the second floor balcony which you can see to the right of Tamami Honma's head. Photo © 2003 Loreta Narvilaite
We finished up in a market in a very pretty old square (in which they were setting up for a rock concert later on), and looked around at the market stalls -- amber is the great Baltic speciality, and we bought a few amber things, including (me) a pipe and (Tamami) a very handsome tree made of twisted copper wire with amber leaves. One is intended to haggle, which comes hard to me, but the prices are still very cheap even if one doesn't.
John McCabe with staff members of Klaipeda Conservatory. Photo © 2003 Tamami Honma
Then on, after lunch, to the various engagements. The first was a meeting with the Director of the Academy and a number of pedagogues, which began with a glass of champagne, a toast, and then a grilling -- they wanted to know how music education works in Britain. The questions were revealing -- theirs is a middle establishment, age group roughly 15-18 (ie not unlike a glorified sixth-form college), which is the sort of conservatoire we don't have. They don't seem to have the same kind of primary/secondary provision of junior colleges going straight on to tertiary level, nor local music schools (such as Kent, for example). While they are not interested in commercial music, they are deeply interested in folk music and have considerable studies in that area -- they seemed somewhat taken aback, even slightly shocked, that we don't study our own folk music. I forebore from pointing out the people in Britain and the USA who are into 'World Music' (which is what passes for folk music, ie Fake Folk) tend to regard the term as specifically excluding English. I did, however, comment that folk music is still sung in local areas at home, something I learnt only recently -- doubtless this should be kept from the World Music brigade, lest they stamp it down. It was a most interesting session, which was probably as revealing for us as it was for them.
John McCabe signing the official guestbook at Klaipeda Conservatory. Photo © 2003 Tamami Honma
Then two concerts of music and poetry. The first was by students of the Academy, presented with much aplomb and a good deal of skill -- some original compositions (including several of considerable accomplishment by our page-turner of yesterday, Silvija Mockute), a few pieces of classical repertoire, and quite a few poems, also written by the students and read by them. There were two girls acting as MCs. One of the poems was also read in English, a graceful gesture in our direction -- we were clearly visiting celebrities, being mentioned in the opening address at both events. The early evening one was a concert of music and poetry by Klaipeda composers and writers. The poetry passed us by, though it is always interesting purely as a musical sound to hear any foreign language being read, but the compositions, which were quite brief, were absorbing. There is clearly a strong local group of creative artists -- I would like to have found out if there were also visual artists of comparable interest in the area. Loreta Narvilaite's new piano piece The Butterfly was an absolutely delightful miniature, beautifully played in its première performance -- she gave me a copy, and I certainly plan to include it on a programme somewhere if I can. Her husband Antanas Budriunes produced (and sang in) another première, a short piece for five male voices called The Gift which was an extremely skilful, quite light piece which I thought would suit the King's Singers. There were also, of particular note, two serious and thoughtful songs by Sileika. Incidentally, I was told that there had been a broadcast the previous day of my Scenes in America Deserta by the King's Singers, presumably from a German tape (or possibly BBC).
Loreta Narvilaite and John McCabe at the Baltic Coast near Klaipeda. Photo © 2003 Tamami Honma
We went off quickly to the beach to look at the Baltic -- walked through the forest from the car park, and then on to the very fine sand on an almost totally deserted beach, with heavy breakers rolling onto the shore. I daresay that, had we known how to tell it apart, we could have picked plenty of amber! Then off to dinner at a splendid restaurant, all wooden beams -- like a converted barn, but heavily built. It was near the square we'd visited earlier, which was now buzzing with fairly loud music and lots of crowds of young people, mostly clasping glasses of beer as if their lives depended on it. After an excellent meal, we came out and everything was clearing -- at least the noise seemed to be packing up. I'd hate to live near any place where they have loud pop music events -- it seems to me an invasion of one's privacy which, in other circumstances, the perpetrators themselves would object to!
Copyright © 17 June 2003
John McCabe, Kent, UK