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2014

PETRAS BINGELIS. 45 YEARS OF SINGING


2014 10 09


On the eve of anniversary musicologist Alina RAMANAUSKIENĖ interviews founder and leader of Kaunas State Choir, laureate of Lithuanian National Prize of Culture and Art Petras BINGELIS.

In your opinion, when did Kaunas State Choir reach its’ pride?


It did not, yet. We are still seeking… Speaking seriously, artistic level is a floating matter. There are floods and there are low tides. It is impossible for the choir to reach the highest level during every concert. Human voices are live and inestimable instruments, you cannot buy new ones anywhere. This is why choirmaster’s profession is very complicated – one has to be very careful and cautious with treasures, spare them. On the other hand, it is impossible to keep them hidden in the strongbox all the time.


Recall, please, the firs concerts of the choir


The first concert took place in Šakiai. It was a beautiful and sunny autumn. Just 25 singers comprised the choir at that time and mostly a cappella pieces were in our programme. Soon we were singing in Vilnius Philharmonic and received favourable opinions. Ponderable and very important opinion in the press was expressed by the most prominent choirmasters of that time: Konradas Kaveckas and Hermanas Perelšteinas. Since then I started thinking that Kaunas State Choir must be different from the other singing collectives. I was eager to perform large-scale vocal-instrumental pieces. We succeeded to bring this idea into life in 1971 – then “Requiem” by W. A. Mozart was performed for the first time.
 

The choir has sung this Requiem Mass numerous times. Could you, please, recall the most impressive interpretation of the last score written by W. A. Mozart?


There were numerous mature and beautiful performances of this score. The most momentous was the saddest one. In 1991, just after the tragic January events, this score was performed to honour the memory of heroes who made the supreme sacrifice for the Independence. Requiem Mass was performed in Vilnius Sport Palace. The mood of choir singers, faces of the people who came to say farewell to the casualties and unearthly purity of the piece merged into indivisible whole. I did not have an opportunity to hear the more inspired performance of W. A. Mozart’s score ever again.


It is difficult to indicate the most significant from 150 large-scale vocal-instrumental pieces. Try to do it…

 

To the “Requiem” by W. A. Mozart I would necessarily add “Mass in B minor” by J. S. Bach, “Missa solemnis” by L. van Beethoven, “Messiah” by G. F. Handel. From the Romantic repertoire – “Requiem” by G. Verdi, “Liturgy” by S. Rachmaninov, vocal symphonies by G. Mahler (Symphony No. 8 being the most important). In my opinion, these are musical culminations, masterpieces, untimely values.


Oratorio “Messiah” by G. F. Handel has been performed by the choir 80 times all-over the globe. Numerous times under the baton of late lord Yehudi Menuhin. After performance of “Requiem” by G. Verdi the choir gained recognition in the Soviet Union. When this score was performed in the hall of P. Tchaikovsky’s Conservatoire in Moscow, local press wrote that in 1974, when “Requiem Mass” by G. Verdi was performed by Milan’s “La Scala” opera theatre choir, the impression was lesser comparing to the performance of Kaunas choir. These words for us were like a balsam with honey. When a huge concert hall was opened in Rome in 2004 we were singing “Symphony No. 8” “(“Symphony of a Thousand”) by G. Mahler. During dress rehearsal conductor - Myung-Whun Chung and the whole “La Scala” theatre choir were applauding for the singers of our choir. This is only a pinch of impressions but they are indelible and will accompany all the time that is intended for us.


And what are, in your opinion, the fundamental scores of Lithuanian music authors? Cantatas? Oratories? Eventually – songs?


They are numerous. I will mark the most distinctive ones. Unambiguously – Bronius Kutavičius’ music. His oratories are masterpieces, shot with mythological spirit, mystery and magic. Choral ballads by Algimantas Bražinskas are superb. Unsurpassable are songs by Julius Juzeliūnas on lyrics by Salomėja Nėris. A lot of interesting things can be found in vocal-instrumental oeuvre of Eduardas Balsys.

You haven’t mentioned any of nowadays young authors. Do you see the signals of decline of the high choral art? Aren’t we overmuch engaged in chase of quantity? It is usual to cover under various projects, true and supposed anniversaries, actions though traces of art there can be hardly found…

We’ve been going downhill not for a year or two. Sometimes it seems that we’ve already touched the bottom. But perhaps there still are ways to go downhill. Clever-clevers seeking for profit, vainglory, entrenchment of one’s position shrewdly find them… I often have opportunities to visit towns all-over Lithuania. I do visit local churches. Have you ever heard how purportedly contemporary music is performed in the sanctuaries? It gives the shudders when you hear “Sanctus” sung in the rhythm of the waltz, accompanied by guitars. It is sung and played haphazardly. And everybody seems contented. This is only one example but there are dozens of them…

For example, Japanese composer comes to me and introduces the score we should perform in Kaunas to honour the former Japanese diplomat. Looking at the sheet-music I cannot believe my own eyes – soprano part is written lower than the bass part. I propose to adjust the score. After two months he returned and showed his piece once again. No adjustments were done. He tried to prove that nowadays it is possible to write in this way. Thanks God I have right to reject the piece I do not like and I did it. When I heard this piece performed in the theatre I did not regret. Pity, but such curiosities occur to the composers of national music as well.

Signals of decline for sure are not heard when Kaunas choir is singing. An impeccably prepared programme “Yes, Donelaitis!” (together with actor Dainius Svobonas) has been heard by almost entire Lithuania during this year. You have raise from lethargy choral scores of Vladas Jakubėnas. Which other scores would you distinguish?

In the beginning of this year we have performed three pieces by L. van Beethoven: final part of the Symphony No. 9, “Missa solemnis” and oratorio “Christ in the Mount of Olives”. We’ve been working our fingers to the bone rehearsing “Requiem” by G. Verdi for the final concert of the 19th Pažaislis Music Festival. It is a pity that our thorough work and efforts were literally speaking ruined by the rain.

At this point we naturally came close to a very burning issue regarding concert halls of our country and their state. The situation in this field is almost hopeless.

I shouldn’t say hopeless but deplorable, indeed. There is no concert hall in Lithuania where classical music could be performed. I will not speak about spaces in other cities but would like to talk about Kaunas. What does the situation in our city look like? Hall of the Philharmonic is a pocket unsuited for the concerts. Hall of the State Theatre maybe satisfied the needs of the beginning of the 20th century public but now it is obviously too small. Soon we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lithuania’s Independence. Arenas were built in various cities. Has anybody calculated how much does it cost to maintain them? Dozens of millions. And the result? Concerts of classical music, musical or ballet spectacles cannot take place here.

We’ve been speaking about the necessity of a new concert hall for long years. We are considering, arguing but the work – not a stir. The Estonians are behaving more prudent, they are investing into their culture. We are just blabbering. What’s the point of this?

Don’t your sources of energy exhaust working with the same collective for 45 years? Don’t you feel sick and tired one from the others?

I won’t pretend – such moments occur. But Kaunas choir singers are very dear to me. All of them.

Everyone has limits of his own potential. I am not an exception in this sense. I am feeling perfectly that years are not “playing” in my behalf but I am trying to fulfil my duties as sincerely as it is possible. To every rehearsal I am coming prepared, knowing tasks and aims. I am still looking for the more beautiful sound of singing, more intense colours, more flexible phrasing. I am the conservator of classical values. I do not approve the choir singing sotto voce or falsetto. To sing piano in correct, back-up voice is a real excellence, just the same like to obtain an absolutely unanimous sound of 71 voices.

After intensive rehearsals you most often pass the “product” of the enormous work to another conductor and the major part of concerts where Kaunas choir singers are taking part observe from aside. Is it easy to be an observer of the highest qualification?

It is very interesting because every conductor one or another score interprets differently. I am always curious how choir singers are able to answer new ideas, how they are mobilizing attention and get accommodated to slightly different tempo of music. But the basis – singing run-in, vocal skills, ability of hearing one another, concentration remain unaltered despite the interpretation. These are our tasks and we are trying to realize them the best possible.

You have started leading Kaunas State choir being 25 years old. How did you feel at the side of senior colleagues?

I think the then minister of culture Lionginas Šepetys was right to appoint a young man to organize and lead a new and big collective – Kaunas choir. I was a zealot of choral music, possessed energy, ambitions and willpower. Every morning, day, evening and often even at night you could meet me in the Philharmonic. I was working very hard willing to bring my ideas into life in a short time.

Choir singers were voiceful people then but majority not prepared technically to perform more complicated music scores. I had to teach them a lot of things. I am grateful to the fate for having worked for 40 years together with a wonderful colleague – conductor Algimantas Mišeikis to whom I am grateful from the deep of my heart. Being a conductor is a mission of Algimantas. He is a conductor to the bone marrow and in addition his erudition, knowledge in choral literature, developed skills of piano playing. He has taught me a lot of things. Algimantas’ patriotism was catching. I remember him in gloomy Soviet times insisting to necessarily sing the lyrics by Maironis “The Highest God, save that beloved country” in the song by Česlovas Sasnauskas. We were risking but we did sing.

Till the restoration of Lithuania’s Independence composition of the choir has been altering a lot. Singers were coming and leaving. Were not able, could not survive tension, accustom to strange and unattractive schedule according to which you do not have free days, concerts are late in the evening, holidays are spent in concert halls meanwhile salaries are deplorable (until now they almost the same). People could not endure it. It would be possible to comprise six collectives from the singers who left the choir.

What would you like to wish for the strongest, most persevering, best singers of your choir on the eve of anniversary?

Good health and success and in their professional activity – concentration, cohesion, listening one to another. Let’s not detract and depreciate. Let’s retain respect to the song and to our profession.

 

Nemunas. No 33-34