Conductor Vilmantas Kaliūnas: Creativity is Always within the Artist

Photo: Franziska Gilli 26

Coming from a Lithuanian family of musicians, Vilmantas Kaliūnas catches the light of music and spreads it in various ways. While he focused on playing the oboe in his youth; Kaliūnas achieved the position of solo oboist in the SWR Kaiserslautern Radio Orchestra. The year 2010 was decisive for the musician – at that time he made the most difficult change in his career by getting up from the oboist’s chair and standing at the conductor’s desk. He achieved this at the Weimar Academy of Music, a birthplace of world-renowned conductors. In pursuit of his career as a conductor, Vilmantas Kaliūnas collaborated with such high-class conductors as Paavo Järvi, Christian Thielemann, Michael Gielen, Heinz Holliger, Christoph Eschenbach, Thomas Hengelbrock and Claudio Abbado. In later years, Vilmantas Kaliūnas conducted the Berlyner Sinfonietta, the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha, the Jenaer Philharmonie, and the Bulgarian Pazardjik Symphony. Since 2014, he was the permanent assistant of maestro Karl-Marek Chichon. Vilmantas Kaliūnas has returned to Lithuania a few years ago and today he conducts the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra. In the interview conductor shares his impromptu concert experiences, the musician’s everyday life and the new music conditions dictated by this year’s pandemic.

You come from a family of musicians. What connection did you have with music as a child?

As far as I can remember, I have always been surrounded by music and playing in all its forms. I was lucky enough to be born into a colorful musical whirlpool of the family, founded by the singer mother and the pianist father. In my childhood I have heard daily piano and violin playing of my sisters, aunt’s organ, and grandfather’s accordion playing. Therefore I experienced many different touchpoints with music.

How do you perceive your daily life as a musician?

It’s difficult to describe it, because, in fact, there have never been two similar days in my life. Making music was never a job for me; I never waited for a vacation or a weekend. Unless you need it to plan rehearsals, concerts or trips, I don’t follow the days of the week – often just in front of a closed store I realize that today is Sunday. For me, the very best vacation consists of music listening, playing and conducting.

How is your life as a musician different from your parents?

The biggest difference between the times is the ability to travel. All borders now are open – you can go to study or work in any country, get to know different cultures, befriend musicians from various parts of the world, and listen to concerts in the best concert halls. Not so long ago people in Lithuania did not have such opportunities.

Throughout your professional career, you combine playing the oboe with conducting. How do you balance these two activities in your daily routine?

There are many different forms of musical expression in my life. Towards these two – conducting and playing the oboe – I directed all my energy and nurtured them for a long time. Like a magnifying glass, I concentrate sunlight at one point to ignite the flames – either conducting or playing the oboe. Sunlight is music, and magnifying glass is all that teachers and life experiences have taught me. Getting up from the orchestra chair to stand in front of the orchestra was one of the hardest changes of my life. When I started conducting, I focused all my energy on conducting and it’s a shame, but the oboe stayed in a second place. When I sometimes take an oboe in my arms, I feel like I’m reunited with my former love. But former, because the future and the experiences waiting in it are associated with conducting.

You have collaborated with many famous conductors. What did you learn from them?

I learned a variety of things while observing and interacting with all different conductors. On the one hand – the art of communicating with the orchestra, on the other – full devotion to the composer’s wishes, on the third – the art of communicating with fans, and concert agents. It is a process, I try to learn from every person I meet and every life situation.

Is it important for you to nurture your creativity?

I pay a lot of attention to the study of the inner world and self-knowledge. The beginning of creativity is always within the artist. As a result, I believe in nurturing my spirit as well as my creativity. Yes, it is extremely important to me.

What makes the preparation for conducting a certain work?

I would compare acquaintance with a new work as acquaintance with new people. Greetings and introductory questions about name, origin, age, or hobbies are repeated at the beginning of each acquaintance. And the subsequent processes become very individual – sometimes it is “love at first sight”, sometimes it takes a long time to communicate in order to understand and get to know the work. For me, the most important thing in the process of preparing to conduct a composition is to dispel all ambiguities and doubts, answer all the questions – I must fully understand the work, feel its entirety. I think that only a conductor full of enthusiasm and admiration for a work can ignite the musicians for a new interpretation of the work, gather their attention with purposeful work.

On what basis do you usually form interpretations of works?

Of course, finding the right interpretation is much more fun when collaborating with the composer of contemporary music itself. The whole process, of course, changes in the interpretation of works composed by creators who have already left this form of existence. The performance becomes based on a kind of conversation with yourself. I will try to read the biography of the composer, take an interest in the peculiarities of that time, feel what the creator wanted to say, what feelings flowed into the score when composing.

What is most important to a conductor in rehearsals?

For me as a conductor, a balance between a strong line of leadership and an empathetic understanding of the musicians is very important. When working with a large group of people, the challenge is to lead one large group, not forgetting each musician individually – the joys and sorrows of their life. Finding this balance gives me a fantastic musical reward. The other balance I seek is between a clear, logical plan, and the ability to forget and fundamentally change that solid plan in seconds. It is important for a conductor to be stable and flexible at the same time.

Is it easy to objectively evaluate your performance after a concert?

Definitely not. During the concert, all the musicians move to another emotional space. After getting off the stage, returning to the everyday state and trying to objectively assess what it was, each musician remembers their own emotion, which is very subjective. As a result, orchestras who often played in the same concert make completely inconsistent assessments. And then you read the music critic’s review, which hits like thunder from the clear sky! An objective evaluation of the concert is difficult to achieve.

Are you often satisfied with your work and that of the orchestra?

Relentless perfectionism, both in the orchestra and in myself, arises during rehearsals. Rehearsals are an eternal quest where each answer hides new questions and opportunities. These are hundreds of “no” leading to the only “yes” that sounds during the concert. Therefore, on the stage, my perfectionism rests, I distance myself from the evaluations, I feel satisfied and grateful.

What concert is successful for you?

I enjoy the concerts, during which everyone – me, the soloists and the orchestra – feel good on stage. This is usually achieved when we are well rehearsed and the music can flow without hindrance. All this is passed on to the audience, the exchange of positive energy begins, which electrifies the whole hall. After such a concert, we all feel uplifted and spiritually enriched. These concerts are a success for me.

Did you have a concert experience that you remembered the most?

Each concert brings with it an unforgettable experience. Some of them are funny, others are full of tension. As a result, frequently met musicians share hours of experiences at concerts or tours. However, non-musicians start to get bored listening to these stories because often those conversations are very specific to the musician profession.

For example, recently the concert program ended with very quiet and mysterious sounds. Before that piece, I offered the audience not to applaud, but to express my gratitude in a different form – for example, a smile, leaving the concert hall with a positive mood. I will certainly not forget the moment when, after the silent end of the piece, I turned to the audience in silence and saw a sea of smiles. Even today, shivers run down when I remember that.

How much control does a conductor actually have during a performance?

I really don’t like the word “control”. For me, conducting is more about directing when you take a friend by the hand during a concert, traveling in the same direction. If you see a dangerous approaching obstacle, you can hold tighter so that the fellow passenger does not suffer. A concert with the orchestra is a joint journey in which I look at the navigation and say which way we will turn at the next intersection.

Are there any improvisational elements in conducting a concert?

Of course, they are the wonders of a live concert. Improvisational elements will not be foreseen or planned – when they happen, all performers need to react with lightning speed. When playing outdoors, you may have to improvise due to the air – wind, rain, heat, cold. But they also happen when performing inside. I remember once conducting from an unbound score and a few sheets fluttered to the audience during the concert. Immersed in the music, I didn’t even notice it. Suddenly I felt someone grab me by the squats and turned around and saw my savior straightening the sheets of score. As the music continued, I gratefully picked them up, and after the concert, she received my bouquet of flowers.

According to what principles do you shape your repertoire?

The principle is very simple – no principles. I think principles often force the developer to stop. As a result, when forming concert programs, I will try to be open to everything, to conduct many new programs. My experience as an artist also helps with that – only when I look at the score does the music sound in my mind. With each new challenge, experience and mastery grow, so do not rarely conductors are compared to wine, which only matures and improves over time.

Is it true that a musician must be at certain age to conduct certain works? Do you have any pieces that you have left for the future?

This is a very individual issue for each conductor. Works such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, and Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony will be best conducted by the conductor; having previously performed most of the composer’s other works. I already look forward to conduct them in the future.

What is most important to you in your music listening experience?

It is important to me that the music flows naturally, is colorful and full of energy. I also pay attention to my breathing while listening to music. If the exhales are long and calm, I experience spiritual rest. I think this is the real mission of music – the restoration of physical and spiritual harmony lost in everyday worries. I pay special attention to this kind of vital energy of music.

How did you make sense of the quarantine period?

The unusual period of this year has confirmed what we all know – the only constant thing in the world is constant change. Change has taken place, is taking place and must take place. It seemed we couldn’t even imagine such a change, and it happened! The coronavirus has really pushed the boundaries of the human imagination! At the beginning of the quarantine, I was informed every day about the cancelation of upcoming concerts, plans and projects. It wasn’t a pleasure to go into the unknown. When my concert activities stopped, I started making music at home and creating projects like balcony concerts. Embracing my deep sadness, I started writing about music and it became a counterweight to all the other stalled activities.

Has the pandemic changed the way you perceive, evaluate your performance?

Now that I see half-empty halls, queues at the entrance, masked listeners sitting at a distance from each other, I want to go back to the past year with this experience, feel the gratitude that would overwhelm me by performing in a hall full of people. I very much hope that in the future we will be able to experience live music again so much that after the performance I will be able to shake hands with musicians and listeners. I know only one thing – gratitude for every concert, every opportunity to play music in me has grown even stronger.

What jobs or projects are you most looking forward to in the future?

I am currently most looking forward to the end of the pandemic. And before it’s over, I’m happy with every job, every minute spent on stage. Since all long-term plans are frozen, I live in the day, from project to project. I very much hope that the expected concert on October 31 with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and soloist Sergejs Krylovs will take place. Nowadays, music, as always, plays an extremely important role and with its help we will gradually regain physical and spiritual balance.

Thank you for conversation!

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