Independence! An old-fashioned meeting of music and politics

  • 2013-02-06
  • By Jonathan Brown

This Soviet-era postage stamp displays traditional Lithuanian instruments, which will feature in the LNPS’ independence concert.

VILNIUS - Music is a powerful political tool. Wielded most forcibly in the 20th and 21st centuries, its authority has brought about unprecedented ends. On Aug. 9, 1942, at the height of the siege of Leningrad, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 boomed over speakers throughout the crumbling city bringing relief to its population and intimidation to German encampments. The newly composed symphony, subtitled Leningrad, became a potent political symbol of Soviet resilience.

It’s no secret one method of military interrogation nowadays includes relentless exposure to ear-piercingly loud music. Democratically elected governments have used music ranging from heavy metal to smooth jazz to “break” the minds and spirits of their prisoners. Members of the IRA interned by the British government in the 1970s cited these methods as the most compromising of their imprisonment, while interrogators at Guantanamo Bay have hinted a four-day dosage of musical abrasion usually reduces their captors to near insanity. This is as unnerving and morally corrupt as music’s union with politics gets.

Thankfully, this relationship is not always fraught. A timid, even celebratory example comes from Vilnius, on Feb. 16. The Lithuanian National Philharmonic will observe the nation’s independence with a concert of specially commissioned music based on “stories and legends of Lithuania.”
What’s most surprising about this concert is the abundance of new music on the program. It can be expensive to commission, the results are unpredictable, and measurable proportions of an audience become defensive at the very mention of contemporary music. In programming new works, the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra makes a bold and admirable offer.

These new compositions play into a bygone tradition of commissioning new art to mark political events. The most recent example was the poem, One Today, penned by Richard Blanco to celebrate Barak Obama’s inauguration to his second term in office. Although the poem made headlines, Blanco’s verse received little positive press. Most critics cited the pointlessness of the endeavor in the age of instant news and equally speedy political analysis. One critic decided it was a “valiant flop,” but sympathized calling Blanco’s task “impossible” in the first place. How the Philharmonic’s new commissions will be heard is impossible to predict, but the endeavor shouldn’t be underestimated.

Where this celebration of independence may prove most successful is in tapping Lithuanian’s rich choral tradition. The Baltics in general harbor a rich singing heritage. What’s more, this heritage is inextricably bound in the story of the three states’ independence through the Singing Revolution. The Kaunas State Choir, Jauna Muzika, and the National Symphony Orchestra are joined by sopranos Lina Dambrauskaite and Milda Baronaite, and tenor Merunas Vitulskis in a distinctly choral affair. The Philharmonic has done well to align the region’s vocal tradition with their celebration.

What about the concert’s theme – “stories and legends of Lithuania?” The idea of engaging a country’s folklore for musical material takes us back to the early twentieth century. It will bring Leos Janacek, Bela Bartok, or perhaps Jean Sibelius to mind. It may only be a rebellious streak, but the emerging generation of composers in the Baltics are largely avoiding, or at least not thinking consciously, on national terms. But Vaclovas Augustinas is far from a budding talent. His stature in the musical life of Lithuania is solidified. Twice graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music in both choral conducting and composition, the majority of Augustinas’ music is for voice. His contribution to the occasion, Prayer for Motherland, will be the most anticipated item on the program.

The Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society was established on Dec. 4, 1940, six months after the first Soviet occupation and six before the Nazi occupation. In 1988, it was recognized as a national cultural institution. Having seen some of the more tumultuous and celebratory landmarks in Lithuanian history, its role in this celebration is poignant. So too, is that of her Excellency, Dalia Grybauskaite, president of the Republic of Lithuania - she is the concert’s patron. This is another curious facet of the concert, as court patronage of music and musicians dwindled in Ludwig Beethoven’s lifetime. Yet here it is again, fully revived.

From a distance, the concert resembles an odd conglomeration of distinctive parts. But the whole has much to recommend it. Although it’s grounded in the past, the concert’s preoccupation with the present is commendable. Its music, program, theme and purpose are designed specifically for its audience on the day – this is welcome example of any cultural organization showing this degree of attention to its audience.

Visit  for additional information about the LNPS’ independence concert.