The extent to which contemporary composers look to the past as well as the future is often best revealed by the traces in their work of existing musical models. Such traces were much in evidence during the Baltic Sea Festival’s concert given by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, featuring works by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Raminta Šerkšnytė.

Giedrė Šlekytė
© Mattias Ahlm | Sveriges Radio

In the case of Salonen’s Piano Concerto, composed in 2007, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that the composer had wanted to look ahead and behind simultaneously, so as to embrace the considerable legacy of the genre while at the same time diverting attention away from it. Conductor Giedrė Šlekytė and soloist Andrius Žlabys responded to this two-pronged compositional attack with absolute gusto; surely, one imagines, precisely what the composer would have wanted, yet this ended up revealing all manner of problems with the piece.

The looking back manifested in a sensation of pre-existing ideas chopped up and grafted together, a mass of gestures and ornaments here, a mess of twiddles and patterns there. Considering the sheer quantity of activity going on – focused, of course, on the piano – it was remarkable how entirely empty it all sounded, its rambling stream of faux-Romanticisms sounding like the most ostentatious treading water. This was matched by the work’s looking forward, articulated via the most polar opposite music imaginable: vast quantities of frantic, energetic, abstract blah, none of it noteworthy let alone memorable – a display of mere content – repeatedly marshalled into meaningless tumults.

The extent of the work’s endless noodling resulted in music with no shape and no space. It sounded as if coherent musical ideas had been deconstructed, blended and, ultimately, homogenised into a featureless soup. Stravinsky’s bon mot about the organ being a monster that never breathes came to mind: Salonen’s Piano Concerto was similar insofar as it couldn’t breathe – it was like stuffing your face with food of no nutritional value, an exhausting exercise in pure bloat. That being said, while Andrius Žlabys could perhaps be described as a glutton for punishment, as a soloist he was truly indefatigable, nothing less than heroic.

Giedrė Šlekytė conducts Songs of Sunset and Dawn
© Mattias Ahlm | Sveriges Radio

In many respects a complete contrast was to be found in Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Songs of Sunset and Dawn. A “cantata-oratorio” – the composer’s term – for soloists, choir and orchestra, also composed in 2007, the work sets words by Bengali poet (and Nobel prize-winner) Rabindranath Tagore. The texts come from two of Tagore’s collections dating from 1916, Fruit-Gathering and Stray Birds, which Šerkšnytė has arranged to create an aphoristic trio of heady, nocturnal atmospheres (progressing from dusk to dawn), in each of which flowers and birds, water and fragrance, silence and slumber coexist and intermingle.

Translated by Tagore himself from the poems’ original Bengali into English, subsequently translated into Lithuanian for Šerkšnytė’s piece, with an additional translation into Swedish in the programme, was it unreasonable to expect the Baltic Sea Festival also to provide an English translation? Perhaps it was, but the lack of this provision made engagement with the work frustratingly limited, dependent on considerable subsequent research to track down and spend time with the texts after the concert.

On the one hand, Šerkšnytė’s musical language could best be described as post-romantic, opting for highly consonant, overtly pretty melodies and textures in order to paint her pictures. To an extent, this reliance on (over-)familiar tropes and mannerisms – at times coming perilously close to the world of Richard Strauss – worked to undermine, or at least challenge, the music’s authenticity. Yet this utilisation of past ideals was expanded by a potent attitude aspiring to what one might almost call an ‘ambient’ outlook. Quasi-randomised glinting and twinkling metallic percussion, as well as drones from which the music emerged and to which each movement returned, lent Songs of Sunset and Dawn a suspended sensibility, enabling the music to press on while floating, and to express intimacy while hinting at infinity (in part extended further by the use of an evocative, dream-like film accompaniment).

In contrast to Salonen’s polar musical opposites, Šerkšnytė’s blend of past evocations and future imaginings – aided in no small part by the intensity of the Swedish Radio Choir’s performance – combined to present something intoxicatingly heartfelt. Despite not understanding the words, it was impossible not to grasp the gist of their sentiments, and to be moved by them.


Simon's press trip to Stockholm was funded by Swedish Radio