Narbutaitė’s Unusual Orchestral Music

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NARBUTAITĖ: La barca. kein gestern, kein morgen (no yesterday, no tomorrow).* krantas upė simfonija (riverbank – river – symphony) / *Jovita Vaškevičiūtė, mezzo; *Tomas Pavilionis, ten; Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee, cond / Naxos 8.573618

This disc was my introduction to the music of Onuté Narbutaitė, a Baltic composer from Lithuania. Though born in 1956, she apparently did not emerge as a composer until the 1980s, and finding herself behind the Iron Curtain—a constraint that many in this country would love to impose on us—she identified with “the silent resistance.” She and her fellow artists “adopted a subtle world view keeping their distance not only from the official social realist doctrine of the time [much like the Social Justice Warriors in the U.S.A.] but also from finding inspiration in the folklore of historicism.” Narbutaitė chose to be maverick, combining avant-garde techniques with an inherent lyricism.

The music on this CD has a continually tense, edgy, dark quality about it. Narbutaitė loves to use astringent orchestration as well as harmonies; her music, like that of many modern composers, is geared much more towards the almost metallic sound of high winds and brass mixed with percussion; when she does use strings, it is judiciously and in a way that never covers up the metallic sound. This gives her scores, such as the opening La barca, an edgy quality even when the volume is soft, and although there is a discernible development in her music it is more often marked by a juxtaposition of themes rather than a linear progression. Yet she manages to hold your attention because she is heavily invested emotionally in what she creates, and this pulls the listener along. In this respect she may be seen as a predecessor of such composers as John Pickard or Thomas Adès, whose music is much in the same vein.

There are, however, certain poetic or image references in her work. La barca represents a boat, according to the composer, “sometimes spreading its sails caught by gusts of wind, sometimes slowly sinking under the heaviness of bass tones, and almost stopping for a moment at a bay with clear calm water.” Once you know this you can hear it in the music, yet the eerie astringent harmonies more closely remind one of Pickard of Leif Segerstam.

kein gestern, kein morgen (no yesterday, no tomorrow) was adapted from Narbutaitė’s opera Comet. Written for mezzo, baritone and orchestra, it is based, like Frank Martin’s orchestral song cycle, on Rainer Maria Rilke’s prose poem The Lay of the Life and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke. Their musical style couldn’t be more different, yet both Martin and Narbutaitė use economical orchestral forces, at times sounding like a chamber group or a chamber orchestra, using a different orchestral palette from Martin. In addition, Narbutaitė uses the singers as narrators, telling a tale, whereas Martin has his singer (a solo mezzo-soprano) act out the lyrics as if she were the character. Yet both works are masterful in their own way, pushing the envelope and creating a unique sense of atmosphere. It also helps that our singers in this performance, mezzo Jovita Vaškevičiūtė and tenor Tomas Pavilionis, have decent voices, well-focused, clear, and with good diction (although Pavilionis sounds somewhat strained in his high register). One similarity I noticed in both composers’ approach to this poetry is that they create an atmosphere of mystery that surrounds the listener like a cloud nebula.

The last piece, riverbank – river – symphony, is as edgy and suspended in time as the first two. Like so many (but not all) modern composers, Narbutaitė’s musical style, though uniquely her own, is rather restricted in scope. She has nowhere the range of expression one heard in Stravinsky, Martin, Martinů or Peter Seabourne; all her pieces seem to follow a similar pattern, similar soundscape, similar tempos and ideas. This does not make it bad music, but it doesn’t have much variety. Still, this disc is a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of someone who is not like everyone else. Recommended with the above caveat.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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