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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

Sunday 4 May

Wandering around the town this morning, one noticed, as on other days, a lot of people walking purposefully and carrying bunches of flowers. The presentation of a single, beautiful white flower to artists at every opportunity is a charming custom -- clearly, they are an important part of the culture. Another significant aspect is the amount of building repair work and road construction taking place (every time I left or returned to my hotel, the traffic routing outside seemed to have changed) -- the work is clearly designed to upgrade and improve the look of the town, not to destroy it and replace it with cheapjack commercial new buildings. First recording session, from 2 to 7pm -- they have two official breaks of thirty and fifteen minutes. (I was a bit anxious that the piazza in front of the City Hall, which is not far from the Philharmonia, was set up for a rock concert, but it didn't cause any disturbance.) The first problem was that the piano tuner was nowhere in evidence, when he was supposed to be standing by, and he had unfortunately tuned the wrong piano -- Tamami did not want the Yamaha but the Steinway. I suppose he'd thought 'Japanese pianist = Japanese piano', but most Japanese pianists I've met seem to prefer other makes (I don't agree with them, having played some very good Yamahas). They played the concerto through and then had the big break while the tuner arrived and tuned (which he did extremely well), and after that, a very tough session was marked by superb playing throughout. A few corners caused problems (including one that had not been a problem in the concert), but it all went extremely well, and they were willing to go over a bit to make up for lost time.

Michael Ponder (left) and Tony Faulkner in a Vilnius restaurant. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta
Michael Ponder (left) and Tony Faulkner in a Vilnius restaurant. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta

Mike Ponder, the producer, and Tony Faulkner, engineer, were flown out from the UK, and were deeply impressed with the standard of playing -- Mike is a stickler for good string intonation, having been an excellent violist himself (which gives him an immediate bond with Donatas, who was founder-violist with the distinguished Vilnius Quartet for many years), and professed himself most impressed with the intonation, which continued to be virtually flawless throughout the sessions. We were fortunate in having the services of a local recording engineer, Balys Ragenas, who was very helpful to Tony and Mike in helping them use what was basically his set-up -- sometimes this sort of situation can cause friction, but Balys was immensely supportive, and I expect keen to learn from these established names.

Tamami's playing was superb, too -- I had never even considered the need to go through the concerto with her, because experience of her playing of my music has been so positive in the past, and during the whole thing I only had to make one interpretative suggestion. She played it her own way, but brought real understanding as well as flair to it. Adrien turned pages for her, and was able to convey messages back and forth if needed, providing her with valuable support -- it was a pity he had to return to England for family reasons the next day. Donatas decided to record the concerto out of movement order, but it made a lot of sense to do the very demanding finale after the first movement -- sense, that is, except for the pianist, who has an immensely tiring tremolo in the first movement, and another one in the finale. I don't think I could have done it, though I suppose one usually manages when needs must. Afterwards, we went out for a splendid dinner with Donatas, Madoka, and the recording team -- it transpires that apart from being an outstanding musician, Donatas also had a flourishing career as a character actor, appearing in at least ten films for children. I suppose he played comic villains and uncles, and he certainly knows how to tell funny stories -- he's one of the most warm-hearted and likeable people I've met, and it's a bonus that such a hard-working and serious musician is such fun to be with. The exchange of musical stories was worth recording.

From left to right: Tamami Honma, Michael Ponder, Tony Faulkner, Donatas Katkus and John McCabe at dinner after the recording session. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta
From left to right: Tamami Honma, Michael Ponder, Tony Faulkner, Donatas Katkus and John McCabe at dinner after the recording session. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta

Monday 5 May

In the morning, a young woman from the radio station came to my hotel to collect some CDs which I was donating to their library, and then I went off to the Composers' Union to meet Daiva Parulskiene, the Director of the Lithuanian Music Centre, and her staff -- I'm due to give a lecture there next Thursday. The Union building has an auditorium upstairs, where I was able to do a little practising, and I left armed with a new library of CDs of Lithuanian music, to add to those I'd already been given. I shall find it very interesting to go through all this stuff. The weather was different again, fine and warm -- I am reminded of Chicago and Melbourne, in both of which cities local residents say 'if you don't like the weather, stick around for fifteen minutes'.

Am I really the first British composer to have visited Lithuania? I'm told so, but cannot believe it. Surely, at least, in the Soviet days one or two of our left-wing personalities must have come here.

John McCabe on the Klaipeda coast. Photo © 2003 Tamami Honma
John McCabe on the Klaipeda coast. Photo © 2003 Tamami Honma

The session this afternoon was on Concertante Variations on a theme of Nicholas Maw, which is a particularly difficult piece but was played extremely well. Donatas was very demanding in getting everything absolutely right, and the players responded with great intensity. Towards the end of the session we were disturbed by a heavy rock music beat which was audible in the hall -- it turned out to be coming from a hi-fi store on the ground floor of the building. Further proof that rock music is a serious menace. I was made quite angry by the sheer insensitivity of a bit on the CNN News, when a headline report on some carnage in the Middle East was accompanied by rock music ...

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Copyright © 10 June 2003 John McCabe, Kent, UK



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