The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is coming to Utrecht for a concert in TivoliVredenburg on Monday 9 April. Under the direction of their young chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla they’re playing music by Wagner, Debussy and Beethoven. – A fairly standard programme at first sight. Fortunately the Lithuanian Gražinytė-Tyla also presents a piece from her compatriot Raminta Šerkšnytė, Fires. Šerkšnytė composed this in 2010 as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that will also be performed.
Šerkšnytė was born in 1975 in Kaunas, a city over a hundred kilometres West of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. From the age of seven she played the piano, and soon after she started composing. She studied composition with the renowned Osvaldos Balakauskas at the Music Academy in Vilnius. Subsequently, she took part in master classes abroad, with such divergent composers as Louis Andriessen, Magnus Lindberg and György Kurtág.
In 2005 Šerkšnytė made a name for herself with her composition Vortex for violin and ensemble in the International Gaudeamus Music Week. In this work the material continually revolves around in a vicious circle, the ‘whirlpool’ from the title. With each ‘turn’, the music becomes more dynamic and complicated. That same year Vortex won the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award. Since then she has gained a permanent place in Lithuanian and international music life.
Šerkšnytė’s music leans toward (post)romanticism but also incorporates elements from (post)minimalism, jazz and avant-garde. From het very first compositions she has enchanted the audience with her intense emotional expression; her work is very passionate. At the same time she has a great sense of form and instrumentation, combining a complex web of rhythmic textures with colourful harmonies.
Her main sources of inspiration are the broad spectrum of psychological states of mind and musical archetypes. Her work varies from calm and meditative to mysterious or nostalgic, but also shows bursts of vital energy. Many of her compositions are in a way musical equivalents of landscape painting. For example her grand orchestral work Aisbergas (Iceberg Symphony), with which she concluded her master’s composition in 2000.
This work was the start of a series of orchestral works inspired by natural phenomena and elementary forces. These include Mountains in the Mist (2005), Glow (2008), and Fires, which is performed during concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In this two-part composition, Šerkšnytė has tried to depict different ‘faces’ of fire: from the detached perception of an approaching disaster to thundering explosions of compressed energy.
The first movement, ‘Misterioso’, opens with ethereal tones and long-held sounds from strings and winds. Gradually, bubbling motifs develop, evoking images of a subcutaneous fluttering fire. The dynamics become more powerful and low instruments join in, after which the fire comes to an initial eruption. Then a sense of – apparent – peace returns, but below the surface it continues to rumble, like a volcano about to erupt.
The explosion comes with thundering noise in the second movement, ‘Con brio’. This opens with repeated themes from brass and strings, played fortissimo; the passage is vaguely reminiscent of John Adams’ music. The ever-closer fabric of violently swirling rhythms and melodic lines generates an increasing amount of tension.
Descending melodies and glissandi create the impression of crashing beams and falling bricks. The structure finally ‘collapses’ with a quote of the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Thus Šerkšnytė alludes to her illustrious predecessor: she composed her piece for a Beethoven cycle by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the concert Fires will precede Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
I hope to speak to conductor Gražinytė-Tyla during my introduction from 19.30 to 20.00