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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

Thursday 8 May

Back to Vilnius by bus, this time a minibus which was quicker. In the piazza in front of the City Hall, there was a very loud rock/jazz group, somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis's early crossover albums such as Bitches' Brew, done very skilfully. An hour or so to rest at the hotel and then off to the Composers' Union to give a lecture on recent British music -- I'd been asked to include younger composers as well as myself, so I started with a bit of one of my quartets on CD and then took the ages downwards, from David Matthews to Joe Duddell and Stuart MacRae. I decided on the day that instead of playing Matthews and Saxton excerpts on CD I would play the piano pieces in my repertoire, and still managed to get through with only a slight over-run. This was partly due to a gentleman who started to argue about points of religious faith, and wanted to turn it into a philosophical debate -- he later managed to give me a book of poetry and translations he'd done, and then charged me 10 Litas. It all seemed to go well -- the CD illustrations were played on some excellent equipment, operated from a next-door control room with no window into the lecture hall, so I had to keep running out to ensure that the right bits were played. The engineer was extremely co-operative, and, like most people, spoke English pretty well. I began the lecture with an excerpt from my Fifth String Quartet, inspired by Graham Sutherland's graphics of the life of bees -- by happy coincidence, it transpired that Lithuanians are especially fond of bees and regard them as personal friends. One is reminded of our own folk tradition of going into the garden regularly to tell the latest news to the bees.

Then a final dinner, courtesy of the Music Information Centre -- it was very nice to see Donatas again (he'd said he might not be able to come to the lecture but managed to make himself free), and we had a splendid time. Tamami was staying on to give a concert at the Japanese Embassy the next evening, but I'd booked to go back on the Friday, so it was my last entertainment, and it made a lively conclusion to my trip. When I got back to the hotel I did the bulk of my packing, as usual on trips abroad (so I don't have too much panic in the morning).

Friday 9 May

Rotuse Hall interiors. Photo © Adrien Cotta
Rotuse Hall interiors. Photo © Adrien Cotta

After checking my bags at the hotel, I went to meet Tamami and we wandered around the shops and then the market stalls, looking for presents -- I found one or two delightful pieces of amber jewellery, and was most excited by the variety of amber on display. The most spectacularly beautiful was dark brown with a milky-white central area, but I was also particularly interested in what is generically called green amber but varies enormously in shade -- tremendous range of colourings, even in the most familiar gold amber. Over the weekend following my return home, they were voting in a referendum about membership of the EU, and when I arrived at the City Hall to meet Tamami I thought I'd wandered into a production of Julius Caesar. The togas were part of a tableau of Italy, with schoolchildren of various ages dressed up in various Italian clothing. Around the town there were various other groups representing the various EU countries (the UK was represented only, so far as I could see, by a bunch of cyclists wearing kilts, not perhaps the wisest combination of dress and transport). These groups were all wandering round town, singing and dancing and waving little hand-painted Lithuanian flags, one of which was smilingly pressed into my hand (I brought it home with me) -- all part of the 'Yes' referendum campaign. Then a final bowl of cold Lithuanian beetroot soup, and Madoka very kindly met us to take me off to the airport -- she was quite adamant that an hour before the flight would be plenty of time for check-in, and she was right. Even more right than she thought, because the flight was delayed for a couple of hours. A good thing I had books I could read -- Vilnius airport, though possessed of an adequate duty-free shop, is minimal in other attractions. The snack on the flight was once again pleasant: smoked beef, ham, cauliflower, and a sticky sweet.

Final thoughts

Tamami Honma, John McCabe, Donatas Katkus and members of the orchestra after the concert at Rotuse Hall. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta
Tamami Honma, John McCabe, Donatas Katkus and members of the orchestra after the concert at Rotuse Hall. Photo © 2003 Adrien Cotta

I've enjoyed many trips abroad over the years, but none more than this, and few as much. I hope that nothing happens as a result of the EU referendum to impair the friendliness and honesty of this society (pickpockets apart). I have a brochure for their seaside resorts with a picture of the beach at Palanga, and two logos are to be seen on it: Baywatch and Marlboro, so the fact that McDonald's are not allowed into Vilnius Old Town suggests that vigilance is still operative in some areas! My only regrets are that I didn't get to see much visual art (the Contemporary Museum in Vilnius looked interesting), and though I met a number of composers, we didn't talk much about music -- partly because I always feel I can only do so when I know something about the composer's music (which I can now do, thanks to all the CDs). But I certainly hope to return, and also to get some of their splendid music played in Britain -- occasional things do happen, of course, but Lithuania seems to have been obscured by Estonian and Latvian music, probably in part due to the existence of a number of very distinguished conductors from those parts who take the music abroad. I found Lithuanian music to have a strong and distinctive character, within which, of course, each composer has his or her own voice. Investigating this is going to be extremely interesting.

Copyright © 24 June 2003 John McCabe, Kent, UK



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