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NEU NOW LIVE Retrospective: Part 3 - Mindaugas Bačkus, Cellist and Orchestra Art Director

30 July 2013

'Some of my colleagues were shocked by this, because at that moment I had already three kids.

But professional development was in progress  and I didn’t want to stop.
'

Mindaugas Bačkus is an accomplished musician who has dabbled in many forms of artistic practice -  from pioneering the revival of baroque cello in Lithuania as a freelance Cellist (at the time he was the only musician in the country who played a baroque instrument) to championing diverse concert programmes that attract broader audiences as the Art Director of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra. In tempo with all this he is also a father and a dedicated educator to children whose endeavors can teach us all about balancing the responsibilities of life with our creative passions.

Bačkus's contribution to NEU NOW LIVE 2009, 'On the Edge', reflected the 300-year evolution of the cello. This music programme featured baroque and modern cello performances that contrasted the compositions, playing techniques, and instruments themselves yet still brought them together into one musical entity.

The NEU NOW team dispatched Jessica Maxwell, resident cello and diversity enthusiast, to catch up with Mindaugas and hear how the beat goes on.   

This interview was conducted via written correspondence the week of June 10, 2013. 

JESSICA MAXWELL: In 2009 you participated in the NEU NOW Festival in Vilnius with your work ‘On the Edge’. Can you talk a little bit about this piece?

MINDAUGAS BAČKUS: It was not a single piece of music but rather it was a concert program with this name. I performed on baroque cello in the first half of the concert and on the modern instrument in the second half. With the title ‘On the Edge’ I meant to explore the beginning of the cello, the first composition for cello solo, and compare it against modern music written for cello with special performing techniques and sounds. That was my goal, to see and hear the difference.  

'Sometime young people
feel lonely with ideas in Lithuania.
The Festival brought us together.'


MAXWELL: How do you feel about of ‘On the Edge’ now?

BAČKUS: I think the idea of tracing the development of the instrument, music style, performance techniques and relationship to listener is very much relevant.

MAXWELL: What were your expectations of the NEU NOW Festival?

BAČKUS: I had no expectations. I was happy that my idea was interesting not only for me but also to others. There was a kind public in the concert; I had very warm and intelligent audience.

MAXWELL: What was the impact of the Festival on your career?

BAČKUS: The main impact I would say was psychological, that there are much more people who look for something new, new ways of expressing music, new ways to perform or to interpret different ideas. Sometime young people feel lonely with ideas in Lithuania. The Festival brought us together.
 

MAXWELL: What were your professional ambitions at the time of your participation in NEU NOW?

BAČKUS: I wanted to introduce baroque cello to Lithuanian students, teachers, and listeners. I thought that this is a very weak point of Lithuanian education. At that time I was the only musician in the country who played a baroque instrument. My hope was that by playing in concert on both baroque and modern cello the impression on the audience would be stronger.

MAXWELL: You have an impressive academic pedigree with multiple higher education degrees from institutions in Lithuania and abroad. What motivated you to obtain this level of education?

BAČKUS: I have to admit that when I finished postgraduate studies in Vilnius in 1997 I had already two kids and was principal solo cello at the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. But something in me was always telling that I’m not good enough and that I have to practice, to improve myself, so I was attending master classes abroad. The turning point for me was my participation in the Holland music sessions, where I met the incredible teacher Viola de Hoog . The impact on me was so strong that I asked him to teach me anywhere he was able, wherever he was I would go. I generally said no matter where, or when, or how, I need to study with you for at least one year. After two years of letters, discussions, and complications I entered the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester to study with Ralph Kirshbaum thanks to his enormous help. My two years in Manchester are among the most important in my life. I was fortunate enough to study with two outstanding teachers at the same time - Karine Georgian as well as Ralph Kirshbaum.

MAXWELL: How has living abroad affected your professional development?

BAČKUS: It changed my life completely. In 2001, after finishing my studies, I came back home to Lithuania and decided to leave the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra. It was a hard decision. Some of my colleagues were shocked by this, because at that moment I had already three kids. But professional development was in progress and I didn’t want to stop. So in 2005 I started the complicated, but very important freelancer life in Lithuania. Now, I realize how important my two years in Manchester were. If this would not have happened, if I wouldn’t have gone there, I would never have the professional life as I have it now. For four years I played concerts and recorded a lot of different things including music for theatre, cinema, and contemporary music festivals. I played a lot with my friends in our string quartet, Chordos, and with many other ensembles. It was clear for me that life will never be as before.

MAXWELL: In 2007 you released the album Pas de Deux, The Most Unusual Duets with Cello. What was that experience like?

BAČKUS: I was looking for new ideas. My thought was that duet is a very intimate ensemble, as there are only two musicians. The musical material sounds very transparent and because of this becomes a very personal thing. I looked for pieces with unusual instruments, like cello and voice, or cello and accordion etc. Some composers dedicated music for me. I received a grant from the ministry of culture in Lithuania and made the project. It is special CD…a bit strange, but I’m happy I did it. Now I would not have time for that.
 

'There was no possibility to study
baroque cello in Vilnius,
so my idea was to use the
Erasmus programme
and go somewhere else
.'


MAXWELL: You mentioned that your work has taken a radical new direction since you were featured in NEU NOW in 2009. How has your practice changed?

BAČKUS: Well, since 2005 I was a freelancer. I played a lot of chamber music, baroque music concerts with friends on period instruments, and I also did recordings in addition to a number of other things. In 2007 I decided to improve my baroque music performance skills and to do so I entered the Lithuanian Academy of Music for the third time in my life. The topic of my dissertation translates roughly into English as: “Baroque Cello. Musical text Interpretation for this Instrument” There was no possibility to study baroque cello in Vilnius, so my idea was to use the Erasmus programme and go somewhere else. That’s how I finally came to Utrecht in The Netherlands where I met Ralph Kirshbaum which led to studying at Manchester. My plan at the time was to improve myself and start actively performing in the baroque fields in Lithuania and to come back to my earlier works. But in the 2009 the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra (in Lithuania) invited me to lead the orchestra. Since taking this position as Art Director of the orchestra I have played with my baroque cello maybe three times. So that’s where the radical shift in the direction of my work came from.

MAXWELL: You took over the reigns of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra as Art Director in 2009 from Liuda Kuraitienė, who founded the group in 1992. What was that transition like?

BAČKUS: The orchestra belongs to municipality. In 2009 the city and the people responsible for cultural life in the town decided that they wanted to improve the quality of musical groups belonging to city. When they invited me for an interview their main goal was to make the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra the highest level group in the region. They expected me to train the orchestra up to very high standards.

It is now four years since and I’m working very hard to do just that. I think we are on the right track, undertaking 50 concerts a year and collaborating with many fantastic musicians from around the world. I hope we will make a nice family of musicians up here.

MAXWELL: As Art Director you’re the principal conductor, a performing musician, the artistic head of the institution, and a community leader. How do you balance all of these roles? Do they feed into one another, are they sometimes at odds?
 

'In the past couple of decades
we lost our audience…
We believe the only hope
is younger generations
.'


BAČKUS: In fact, I have not much of paper work. Everything is done by the office. So, all my time I rehearse, teach, practice, and build the concert season of the orchestra. My job is very creative and we have an extremely nice team in Klaipeda concert hall. So I would say all my roles feed into one another.  

MAXWELL: How did Playful Music Orchestra, an educational program that allows schoolchildren to perform with professionals, come together?

BAČKUS: Educational programmes are one of most important issues in my work. In the past couple of decades we lost our audience, sometimes it is very hard to bring an audience into the classical music concerts. We believe the only hope is younger generations.

Playful Music Orchestra was created by active people in the office and since then developing all the time. We have programmes not only with schoolchildren, but also with drama actors from university, with Puppet Theater, with choirs, etc. 



MAXWELL: You’re noted in the field for your affinity for a wide range of styles, from baroque and classic programmes to work by contemporary composers. How is this reflected in the repertoire of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra?

BAČKUS: I maintain a steady repertoire with the orchestra. For instance every year from January to February I do master classes with baroque musicians. Next year we have agreed with Reinhard Goebel to work with us. Or every September we have contemporary music sessions. This September we will do a contemporary American music programme with American conductors. I definitely want the orchestra to play many different kinds of music. Stylistic difference in performance is my goal.

MAXWELL: When preparing for this interview I came across a performance of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra that included a delightful rendition of Mack the Knife. What made you choose it? Is this your trademark eclecticism showing through?

BAČKUS: A friend of mine is the baritone singer Stein Skjervold from Norway, who lives in Vilnius, and mounted a beautiful performance of Kurt Weill songs with piano. I thought his programme would sound good with the orchestra. We made arrangements and that’s how it started.  



MAXWELL: In addition to your many responsibilities as Art Director you also play Cello with the BSM trio. Do you find you still have as many opportunities to play as you would like?

BAČKUS: We just came back from Germany and Italy with BSM trio. It is group of friends improvising on stage. This is a group that is more for fun. I really enjoy this project. We have up to 10 concerts a year and the music is very special.

When I started to work in Klaipeda I canceled almost everything I did before. My job now as Art Director makes me feel tired but extremely happy. Sometime I have to say no to my previous activities, but at the moment my biggest opportunity is Klaipeda. 

MAXWELL: What is the situation for arts funding, specifically for music, in Lithuania?

BAČKUS: The situation is complicated, as it is everywhere in Europe. Foundations are active, but the amount of money available is limited.

MAXWELL: Has the funding situation changed due to the crisis? If so, how has it affected your work?

BAČKUS: It has changed due to the crisis but it does not affect my work. We belong to the city and we have long term contracts.

MAXWELL: What are you working on now that you’re excited about?

BAČKUS: My ongoing work with the Klaipeda Chamber Orchestra and my new work with Klaipeda University’s Faculty of Art where I’m going to head the string and wind music department starting in September 2013.

MAXWELL: You participated in the first NEU NOW Festival, now at the five festival marker you’re Art Director of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra, where can we expect to find you when you interview for the tenth NEU NOW festival?

'I want Lithuanians to come back
to Lithuania from emigration. 
'


BAČKUS: I want the Klaipeda chamber orchestra to be one of the best in the world.

I want the Klaipeda University to be one of the best in Europe.

I want Lithuanians to come back to Lithuania from emigration.

But I would not be sure about me in the future. In five years you might find me in a little house in the forest, alone, writing a little book for cello beginners. We never know.
 

Jessica Maxwell is Communications Officer for The European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) and is currently working on editing the upcoming ELIA publication 'Art Futures' due out in March 2014.

 
   
   


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