Profiles: a Lithuanian Musical Jewel “Mūza the Magnificent”

By Arnold Voketaitis
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PERHAPS MANY OF LITHUANIAN, HERITAGE readers or opera/concert goers will remember my name from my 45 year international/ national operatic/concert career. Well, this article is not about my career, but about Lithuania’s great internationally acclaimed, honored and brilliant pianist Muza Rubackyte.

When Chicago’s premiere classical radio station WFMT asked me two years ago to give a second final “live broadcast concert” marking my career, I agreed, but only if I could share it with someone of high musical stature. The station agreed. Through an astounding reputation made clear through recordings and glorious reviews, I phoned Muza in Paris where she now resides following “perestroika” and asked if she would appear and share the program with me. Muza graciously accepted. The concert proved a great success and Muza triumphed with her astounding technique, musicianship and total artistry. She will return two years later for a solo recital plus interview on WFMT Chicago on March 19, 2001 at 8 P.M. Circle that date on your calendar and listen to this great artist called by many “one of the world’s great pianists.” On the Web at

As to my present affiliation with Rubackyte, through a web of circumstances and the willingness to take on a new challenge in my senior years, I’ve become Muza Rubackyte’s North American professional representative. Her European career and reputation flourishes on the continent at the highest of performing levels. The prominent publication FANFARE (The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors) has given permission to rewrite and print the following interview Muza gave them in 1994. The reader will be amazed at what she went through and tolerate as her talent, persistence and personal drive carried her during Lithuania’s Soviet occupation.

Though having given major recitals in the USA, Bermuda and the Newport Music Festival and for various Lithuanian communities, I am proud to announce that finally and deservedly Muza Rubackyte will be making her American symphonic debuts with the Nashville, Tennessee Symphony (January 5/6, 2001), North Carolina Symphony (Raleigh/Durham, March 16/17, 2001), fly to Chicago on March 18, 2001 for the WFMT radio concert, then immediately travel to Canton, Ohio to appear with the Philharmonic (March 25, 2001). She will perform the Liszt Piano Concerto #1 with all the three Symphonies. Anyone in those areas, please make it worth your while to hear this glorious artist. As to Liszt, many reviewers have claimed Muza “One of the greatest Liszt players alive.”

Her hectic schedule continues when following her Canton engagement she must immediately make connections for a 12 hour flight to Santiago, Chile for three concerts with the National Philharmonic playing the Chopin #1 Concerto. Finally, in early April, she returns to Paris for a much deserved rest.

Before I conclude, I’d like to point out that as Lithuanians celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Lithuania’s most famous composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), one will find interest in what Muza has to say about his compositional style in her interview. For those Lithuanian record collectors, Muza has recorded two albums of Ciurlionis on the Marco Polo label as well as recently completing a Liszt trilogy for the Lyrinx label.

Now, onto the interesting and compelling FANFARE interview with “Muza The Magnificent.”

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Edited and rewritten for Lithuanian Heritage by Arnold Voketaitis from Fanfare — The Magazine For Serious Record Collectors (Nov/Dec, 1994).

FANFARE READERS ARE NOW familiar with praise for the Lithuanian pianist Muza Rubackyte. In an earlier issue of the magazine, Adrian Corleonis described her as “an artist of phenomenal powers who must be among the most gifted pianists of her generation,” and went on to praise “her unique sound — a sort of prismatically tinted ecstasy.”

In describing her beginning, Muza said “I come from a musical family. My great-grandmother was a pianist who studied in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the [20th] century. My mother is also a pianist and my father an opera singer in Vilnius. In Lithuania, I studied at the School for Gifted Children which has a high reputation for teaching talented children in painting, ballet and music. It was the practice there to give a concert virtually every day, so that it became a habit from the age of six and a very fruitful one. I gave my first orchestral concert at seven. Bit by bit I won all the prizes that were to be had in Lithuania and competitions in Tallinn (Estonia). Soon afterwards at the age of twelve I left for Moscow to study when the average age for admittance was seventeen. I was enrolled at the School of Arts, but in reality was studying at home with my mother and aunt who herself had studied with a number of prominent Russian, German, and Polish teachers. Six years later at 18 and having advanced study with the greatest teacher at the Moscow Conservatory — Yakov Flier, I won the All-Union Com petition (best in the Soviet Union), and two years later entered a major competition in Budapest (Liszt/ Bartok International) which I again won. That was very important to me, as tIiere were many important musical people there, a major big prize, and all sorts of agents from around the world including the likes of Maestro Antol Dorati. I signed a lot of contracts for concerts in Australia, France, and the United States including a tour with Maestro Dorati and the Detroit Symphony. So I returned to Moscow with all this and went to the sole organization that existed in the Soviet Union to deal with tours abroad — Gosconcert. It was a monopoly as a concert agency who allocated passports. I went back to Lithuania to wait for my passport, and when the moment came, nothing happened. I was told one story after another, that it was impossible, that someone had said no. One wasn’t in a position to ask questions — you just had to accept the answers and wait. And wait. I learned some years later that someone else was given the tour. They said I was ill, that I had an operation, that I had had a child — any old nonsense. Even Maestro Dorati came to Moscow to insist, but it didn’t work; they told him I was very ill in a hospital. In short, it was the old policy of the Russian Mafia to disadvantage the Lithuanians and Balts. They always considered us somehow foreign, and therefore spies in some way or other. And that was it! It was very sad, because it nipped in the bud the beginning of a career that ought to have been relatively easy.”

Mūza Rubackytė during one of her recent recitals.
Mūza Rubackytė during one of her recent recitals.

After a brief reflective pause Muza continues: “So instead I was allowed to travel and perform only within the Soviet block of nations in Eastern Europe. The only result of the competitions was that I recorded a disc of Bartok for Hungaroton. There I was, seven years without being able to leave. I traveled extensively round the Soviet Union from my home in Lithuania to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan — the lot. All the help and support of Lithuania didn’t make any difference. I played a lot, often in the same lamentable conditions that Rostropovich had had to suffer playing for workers in the factory breaks between shifts, that kind of thing. And for a woman on her own it really wasn’t a happy experience or funny. If I was traveling in Siberia, I would have to take my own food because there was nothing to eat there. I’d have to wait for a flight that was twenty-four hours late, stuck in, say, Alma Ata, because there was no fuel. A woman out there on her own is considered a whore and the hotels don’t want you because you’re on your own. I have enough to make my memoirs full and lively.

It wasn’t all bad from a musical standpoint. I had good concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg, though they were rare, and orchestral concerts and tours with Lithuanian orchestras, but always inside the Soviet Union. So I learned a great deal of music, which is why I have today such a large repertoire of thirtyodd concertos and over thirty different recital programs. I used my time well.

In the meantime I continued to teach at the Conservatory in Lithuania, preparing young students for international competitions. When Gorbachev came, certain possibilities opened up, and I saw the opportunity of leaving to study French music in Paris for a year via a grant from the French government. That’s what allowed me out into the wide world to look, learn, and constantly attend concerts. Also, to listen to musicians on recordings unavailable back in Lithuania.

While in Paris, I entered a competition called Les Grand Maitres Fran- eaises (The Grand Masters of France, and later to be known as the Paris International Piano Competition) which consisted only of French music — and I won it, which allowed me to make myself known in France and throughout Europe. Offers started to come in, there was the recording for Lyrinx, the concert recitals, and the festivals such as Richter’s festival at Grange de Meslay, in the Theatre des Champs- Elysees, at UNESCO. Now I travel abroad, have agents in various countries, and a reputation that keeps spreading. I do play a great deal in Holland, Germany and England.”

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In 1998 with the late Sir Yehudi Menuhin (below) after both were bestowed the Order of Gediminas medal. They are flanked by former Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas (left) and current President Valdas Adamkus.

Has the move to France had a marked effect on Muza’s repertoire? “It has grown even larger. I play more or less anything, not the really contemporary stuff, since I think of the piano as an instrument which speaks and sings; I don’t agree with using it as a percussion instrument. As to programming, I do play a fair amount of Lithuanian music in many of my concerts.”

Because of her recent Liszt CD for Lyrinx, the question of her obvious sympathy for Liszt is raised. “I consider myself a Romantic pianist from Mozart to Beethoven, but Liszt is my first love. I began playing Liszt when I was ten years old; it sat well under my hands; it found an echo inside me — it’s my mother tongue, in effect.” Her reaction to the dramatic possibilities in Liszt is immediate and completely natural — indeed, the music on that CD is the most explicitly dramatic I have ever heard. Muza comments, “With Liszt it’s not merely a question of beauty of sound, but each piece is in some way a story which you have to be able to tell others as precisely and clearly as you can.

Discussing Muza’s double-disc CD set of Ciurlionis music on Marco Polo records raises a question of “schools” (style of play). To this writer/critic, Ciurlionis’ music requires a poet, whereas the graduates of the Moscow School have a reputation as keyboard whiz kids. Does Muza consciously change her style from composer to composer, or from audience to audience? “Style,” she says, “is a question of taste, of course, but in my view the Moscow School is the most universal one. You can adapt your style, but one shouldn’t change it too much, being tolerant to the change and always being yourself. The Moscow School is taught in Lithuania, and is, perhaps, less musical. O f course, that depends on the period, too. In the time of socialist realism there was a sort of circus, with all sorts of madmen battering away at the piano and gaining a name as being great pianists. They’d get ten or twelve pianos playing together to celebrate the revolution, or something like that. So all signs of mere humanity were considered as weakness. You can see it in their statues: they celebrated strength, not humanity or sensuality.

Muza now takes part every year in a master-class of the Moscow Conservatory at S ariat, France where about twenty prominent artist/teachers teach a hundred or so pupils for about a month. She wants it put on the record that she does have the warmest memories of the Moscow Conservatory, and though times were difficult, one will not find anywhere in the world where there is so much love for music.

And what of Mikalojus Ciurlionis? “Ciurlionis is someone I have known since I was a child. He’s one of the great composers of Lithuania. I studied at the school that bears his name, and when we were children we were all obliged to learn his little preludes. I felt it was a national duty to make those recordings, not least because I love the music. They are full of images of nature, full of mystery, full of drama — in pieces which sometimes last for just forty seconds. These are the representations of a psychological state. It is worth remembering that Ciurlionis was first and foremost a very great painter — indeed, his paintings have recently been wildly successful in Japan — and he brought his vision as artist to his music. You can see musical forms in his paintings: sonatas with allegros, andantes, and so on. He really was someone ahead of his time, and who knows where he might have gone if he hadn’t died at the age of thirtyfive. It’s a pity that he was not allowed to develop, to find his own style, because as it is, he always resembles someone else. I’m talking about his piano music, because when one comes to his orchestral music, you really are dealing with perfection. Many of the preludes are actually sketches for works he was going to write later, which is why they are often unfinished. As things were, you had more or less to accept what Landsbergis [Vytautas Landsbergis, President of Lithuania following 1990 independence, and acknowledged expert on Ciurlionis] has written, or Ciurlionis’ sister [Jadvyga Ciurlionyte], who was a musicologist, had said — cyes, I can remember him playing this one evening.’ In preparation for the recordings, we spent six months analyzing the music, so the discs contain everything that is reliably by Ciurlionis.”

What about other Lithuanian composers? “There’s an enormous amount of good concertos, beginning from the time of Ciurlionis’ death, from a whole host of names: Dvarionas, Balsys, Vainiunas, people like that. And we as Lithuanian professionals feel more and more the duty of spreading the knowledge of our music, since we lost so much time in the Soviet period.”

As one of the finest virtuosos of the day, Muza has been asked to become an ambassador for Lithuanian culture, and proudly states: “I’ll do what I can to draw attention to my country’s neglected treasures, and draw in what musician friends I can to help.”

This particular jaundiced critic has been deeply impressed by what he has heard and seen of Muza Rubackyte’s playing. It would be very strange if her telephone didn’t very soon start to ring loudly and regularly.