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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jeronimas Kačinskas

Jeronimas Kačinskas (1907 -2005) was a distinguished teacher of mine at the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s were he taught conducting and music composition. He was a member of the Berklee faculty from 1967 to 1986.

He was a quiet, unpretentious, and frail looking man who spoke good English in a soft voice. Yet, everyone in our department admired him for his musical skills, talent, and experience. Students and faculty alike held him in high esteem, and to this day I remain in awe of his many accomplishments.

Yet, despite his profound musical abilities and distinguished reputation in Eastern Europe, he remained highly obscure for the majority of his life in America, and lived quietly in the Lithuanian community of South Boston with his wife of 64 years, Elena (Šlevaitė). But to the Boston musical community at large, he was a virtually unknown entity to them, and that was an injustice.

Kačinskas was born in Viduklė Lithuania on April 17th, 1907. His father was a church organist. He went on to study at the National Conservatory of Lithuania in Klaipėda and then at the Prague Conservatory in Czechoslovakia where he received his degree in 1929. He studied conducting, piano, composition, and viola. Soon after he joined the faculty at the Vilnius State Conservatory and his career as a composer and conductor flourished.

His composition teacher was Alois Hába (1893-1973), a Czech composer and music theorist who worked in microtones. Hába commissioned quarter-tone and sixth-tone instruments such as trumpets, clarinets and pianos, and Kačinskas acquired one of these pianos and began composing in the microtonal pitch system. I remember Kačinskas talking about the microtonal orchestra he had created with his teacher and other associates.

Hába also influenced Kačinskas with his concept of "athematic music." Since "nothing in nature and the human life is recurrent, therefore music has also to be written according to the principals of non-recurrence." Kačinskas adapted modernist ideals, and was an early champion of new music in Lithuania.

As a composer, Kačinskas gained international recognition in June of 1938 when his "Nonet" (1932) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass was premiered at the I.S.C.M. (International Society for Contemporary Music) Festival in London. His work was performed along side compositions by Darius Milhaud, Vitezslava Kapralova (a talented but little known woman Czech composer/conductor), Aaron Copland, Viktor Ullmann (who would perish at Auschwitz in 1944), Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Anton Webern, and Béla Bartók.

(Wow. That must have been an interesting crowd to hang out with at the London Pubs).

It is said that Kačinskas' "Nonet" was written in a style that is somewhat similar to the music of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Kačinskas and I would talk about Bartók alot, and apparently the two men had mutual respect for each other after meeting in London. When pressed, Kačinskas would concede that Bartók's music occasionally degenerates into whimsical silliness - a trait that neither of us found compelling in Bartók's generally masterful work.

His reputation as a conductor in his native country was blossoming. By 1944 he had conducted 1,000 concerts with the Vilnius Philharmonic Orchestra and Vilnius State opera. All was going well, at least until WWII extended into the Baltics and Stalin took control of Lithuania.
"We spent one year under Stalin and it was very harsh. One of my wife's brothers was shot, another was sent off to Siberia. The Russians had forbidden my composition to be played after the state declared them bourgeois and decadent. I became outspoken and perhaps too provocative towards them because I felt so strongly that they should not interfere with my work."

"I put a few necessities and what was left of my manuscripts, concert programs, and reviews into a horse-drawn farm cart, and we left. We managed to get about 250 miles from Vilnius, avoiding encirclements on three separate occasions. Finally we were caught in the middle of a battle and had to abandon the cart in the road. At that point my only thought was to save my wife's life. I don't know what happened to my music. I'll probably never know whether it was picked up or thrown away."

[the except above is from an interview with Kačinskas in Berklee Today, Spring 2002 issue].

In 1944 Kačinskas and his wife escaped Lithuania by travelling 600 miles on foot and by horse-drawn carriage through Poland and eventually on into war-torn Germany. The ardours and dangerous exodus took several months. Not only was forced to leave the majority of his musical compositions, but his rare microtonal piano had to be left behind.

In Augsburg, Germany he and his wife were rescued by American troops and placed in a refugee camp. Not wanting to remain idle, Kačinskas organized war-time and post-war concerts. He guest conducted at Ludwigsbouw Hall with the Ausburg Orchestra, with the Prague Radio Symphony, and with the Duborknick Symphony Orchestra in Yugoslavia.

In 1949, the couple emigrated to the United States, and Kačinskas returned to his roots as a church organist at St. Peter Lithuanian Parish in South Boston where was also engaged as a choirmaster and composer of religious music. In 1967 he joined the faculty of the Berklee School of Music (which until 1960 was called the Shillinger Institute of Music), where some of his colleagues on the faculty informally referred to him as "Jerry."

As a teacher I found "Mr. Kačinskas" to be pretty easy going. I recall working a Schoenberg-influenced piano sonata, and he would play through it but have little to comment on. We both seemed to believe, like Bartók (who took no composition students on ethical grounds), that teaching music composition is an impossible task. Yet we had many interesting conversations about music. One discussion over coffee in the student lounge that sticks out in my memory is regarding the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. It's so damn short! But in those few minutes, a lot of ground is covered. Both of us reveled in that fact.

His teaching of conducting technique was much more rigorous. He would sit at the piano and respond as an orchestra would as individual members of the class took turns conducting musical excerpts with our batons. Kačinskas would start us off with the Bach Chorales, drilling us on the tricky execution of fermatas at different locations within the measure. He showed us how to negotiate all kinds of conducting problems, including operatic recitative - which has a fluid tempo that is out of the conductor's direct control. He explained that the orchestra needs to have the "empty" beats and measures communicated to them, but it is traditionally done in a cool, calm, and collected manner, without any unnecessary emotion.

Outside of a concert of his music put on by Berklee in 1991 (five years after his retirement), I don't believe that Kačinskas had any of his major pieces performed in Boston, or elsewhere in the United States for that matter. After coming to America he had dedicated his life to teaching, and avoided the mainstream Boston contemporary music scene altogether. I remember writing a letter to the then music critic of the Boston Globe suggesting that he investigate Kačinskas' music. Unfortunately, there were never any concerts to review.

However, before his death at the age of 98 from cancer, he was invited back to Lithuania for one last visit. In 1991 he was awarded the Lithuanian National Prize. The award is granted for achievements in culture and the arts. The prize is formally bestowed every February 16th when the decorations and diplomas are presented to the laureates at Presidential Palace in Vilnius.

I would have loved to been there to see him receive his award.