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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

23 June 2017
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The unorthodox music professor

Text: Aage Myhre

Here he is, the professor who is conducting music and music festivals more energetically than anybody else, and who treats the very term music in an anything but traditional manner, for example when he conducts an acrobatic plane, doing its loops according to Bach’s “Ave Maria”, or when he conducts a complete “orchestra” of bulldozers and excavators.

- Bulldozer conduction is very sexual, says the professor, gesticulating and emphasizing the importance of his words, in his so typical manner - full of humor, intensity and warm enthusiasm.

Donatas Katkus was born in Kaunas 68 years ago, where his mother, an amateur actress, raised him alone. The professor was the outcome of a hectic love affair, and he never met his own father.

-But, says the professor, I do not complain, because I am a very young and very nice man, and I am just happy my mother did not take the veil in a Belgian nunnery, as she planned to do before the war started.

 “The cultural life in Vilnius is in fact so attractive and extensive that there is no need to go anywhere else. You are never alone in Vilnius!”

 

Life is easy

Professor Katkus is widely known for his excellent mood. The laughter and the good story is never far away, always told with great immersion and sometimes also with aloud gesticulation in order to make himself fully understood, like when he told me about the concert, where he conducted a small plane to make its loops to the music of “Ave Maria”. 

Everybody in the restaurant stopped talking when the professor started his demonstration of how this event had been performed, using his arms to follow the loops, and his voice to indicate how the plane engine had been increasing its number of revolutions on its way up to highest octaves, into a decrescendo of sound and movement when the plane turned its nose down again.

- I am an actor by nature, and I do not take life too seriously, says the professor.

Forest brothers

But life was not always easy for Donatas Katkus. He can still well remember the summer day in his mother’s native village in the year 1949, when KGB suddenly appeared with a young, white-shirted man they had arrested. After one hour they re-appeared, and then the young forest brother’s shirt was totally soaked with blood. They would put the dead body of forest brothers at show for two weeks in the center of the village square in order to observe the reactions of the people watching the gruesome show so they could find out the relatives of the diseased and to demonstrate how dangerous it was to fight for the freedom of our country, says the professor with a sad glance. 

Family in Siberia

- Many from the family of my wife were deported to Vorkuta and the Siberian tundra, and I know stories of how they had to build their houses from frozen human bodies because no other building materials were available.

- But I know that they had their music, and I tend to think that the Lithuanian folk songs very much contributed to their survival, he tells, and the eyes of the professor start shining again.

Fear is terrible

- How was it to work during the Soviet period?
- Well, for people like me, working with culture, it was not too bad. But it was terrible always to feel fear, always having to look back over the shoulder in case somebody should be listening. Vilnius was a true province during those years, as everything international was supposed to take place in Moscow, and only at the end of the period it was possible to get impulses through Warsaw and later also directly from the West. My personal “breakthrough” came when I, as a young man, was chosen to participate in a competition in the Belgian city of Liege, where our Vilnius String Quartette won the first price.

One of the greatest achievements of Professor Katkus was to start and develop the Vilnius String Quartet, where he played his main instrument, the viola. – I have been playing in the quartet for 29 years, and it is still doing well today, so I am rather proud of that, he says.

St. Christopher

The St. Christopher has come to play the main role in the life of Professor Katkus, first when in 1994 he founded the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra, and in 1995 when he started the now so famous St. Christopher Summer Festival, which also this year was very successfully concluded, with its 36 concerts in different Vilnius venues during the months of July and August.

The saint’s name derives from a 3rd century legend, and the name means “Christ-bearer”. St. Christopher is the patron Saint of Vilnius and is featured on the coat of arms of the city. Due to the old legend, St. Christopher has become the saint of people who carry certain loads on their shoulders. The name seems to fit for the professor…

Money is crazy

Professor Katkus admits that it has been a very hard job to collect all the money needed for his summer festival. – This year, for example, he says, when it was only one week till the opening, I was still lacking 70,000 litas.

- But you did not get a heart attach?
- Look, I get several heart attacks in every festival, but do the festivals become inferior because of this? It’s so crazy always to have to think about money, which in fact is SOOO small a part of reality, so I prefer to remain happy whatever happens!

Advice to foreigners

- What is your advice to foreigners living in or visiting Vilnius?
- My advice is to take advantage of the fantastic musical life we have here in this rather small city, including two symphony orchestras, two chamber orchestras, two string quartets and a Music Academy with concerts almost every day! Both our Opera and our National Philharmonic are of fantastic level, and there are also a number of good pop and jazz concerts around in town. The cultural life in Vilnius is in fact so attractive and extensive that there is no need to go anywhere else. You are never alone in Vilnius!

Especially when the St. Christopher Summer Festival is in full swing in July and August.

Category : Culture & events / Featured sub-section



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