The Brief Rise of Brevis
A dynamic young choir wins the top European award
Milda Čiužaitė and Darius Krasauskas
How long are you prepared to work to make your dreams come true? Twenty minutes probably sounds more than acceptable. But what about seven years?
For the Brevis Chamber Choir from Vilnius it took 20 minutes on the stage to win the European Grand Prix in Choral Singing. But it took seven years to get to appear there in Tours in France, where Europe’s most prestigious choral competition took place at the beginning of June.
Brevis achieved its dream of winning the highest possible award for an amateur choir in Europe by beating four contenders, from Germany, Finland, Norway and the United States. The five choirs competed among themselves after each of them became the absolute winner of top-level contests in various cities around Europe in 2002.
“When you have the cream of the cream all together, selecting the winner is always difficult,” Eskil Hemberg, head of the international jury, said after the competition.
“But Brevis is, I have to admit, a truly marvellous choir, which glows with exceptionally deep musical feelings.”
Seven Years to Get to the Top
The title of Europe’s best choir is what the singers, led by Gintautas Venislovas, their young and passionate conductor, have striven for since 1996, when the choir became absolute winner of a competition in Slovenia at its debut international appearance. Since then, Brevis has taken at least one prize at each of the nine other competitions it has taken part in, while in four the choir was awarded the Grand Prix.
Venislovas, 30, who already has difficulty finding room for the more than 40 different cups and prizes he has won, including three personal best conductor awards, says that the prizes themselves have always been less important, both to him and to the singers, than the pleasure of musical creativity and invention.
“It’s always good to win,” he says. “And winning the most prestigious European trophy is of course a special moment.
“But for me, working with the choir has always been primarily about artistic quality, about different interpretations, about new musical ideas, and even perhaps about delicate surprises for listeners.”
He could not resist springing a surprise at the European Grand Prix this summer. According to the rules, every choir has to present at least one piece with an instrumental accompaniment. Brevis sang I Wanna Die Easy, a negro spiritual arranged by Venislovas. Not such a surprise maybe, except that instead of a piano, the usual instrument, it was accompanied by a tuba.
“A choir is always a reflection of its conductor; and Brevis’ achievements are mainly down to Gintautas Venislovas,” says Vytautas Miškinis, president of the Lithuanian Choir Union.
“He is a truly creative and ambitious person, able to get excellent results in a very short time. Brevis itself is unique, partly because the choir manages to survive driven purely by its singers’ enthusiasm.”
Experiment is the Driving Force
Brevis was founded in 1990, at the Church of St Casimir in Vilnius, as a vocal ensemble. A handful of its members still gather there at Mass every Sunday, to sing various kinds of religious music, from Gregorian chant to contemporary pieces. This reflects the choir’s interest in experimentation, spurred on primarily by Venislovas.
“Theoretically, we could give a concert every week,” he explains. “But I don’t think it’s worth it, because we would then become boring, both to audiences and to ourselves.
“When I plan a concert, I always look for something new: a new piece, a new interpretation, new artistic combinations. I want it to be attractive, both to singers and to listeners.”
According to Zita Kelmickaitė, a musicologist, “the choir captivates you with its youthful openness, temperament and creativity. The young singers make music on the spot by a different interpretation. They try to be Baroque rationalists, Romantic dreamers or, when singing contemporary music, rational pragmatists, at the same time not just turning out dull music.”
Over the last few years, Brevis has taken part in a number of different musical projects. These include a concert-installation called “Eternal Light”, which combined music, monumental painting and architecture, “Christmas Flowers”, a TV programme with local pop, rock and opera stars, a course of Philippino music, and a nationwide tour of “Tele-Bim-Bam”, the children’s music and arts programme, to name just a few of the unconventional events.
The choir’s most recent appearance was at an open-air staging in June of The Devil’s Bride, a project which revived the first Lithuanian rock opera.
Gaining Fame and Giving Soul
International recognition, invitations to important choral festivals in Europe, and involvement in different musical projects in Lithuania, are very important, yet are only one side of what Brevis has achieved over the more than seven years of its international appearances. Another achievement, and perhaps the most worthy one for all the choir, is its close, family-like atmosphere.
“We hear many different explanations as to how and why this came about,” says Darius Džiaugys, who works as an investor relations officer with a major company.
“I think it’s because each of us has a real wish to experience the unmatched feeling of giving part of our soul to the audience through music. In a choir, it’s impossible to do it alone. You really have to be and even to live together on the stage.”
He is one of the few in the choir who is not a student or an alumnus of the Lithuanian Academy of Music.
Since a number of its singers with professional musical backgrounds are now involved in different businesses, they joke that Brevis can never go far wrong, because it has its own specialists in everything, from arts management and telecommunications to public relations and capital investment.
Having taken part in ten choral competitions in seven years, the singers confess that each contest performance is a nerve-wracking affair.
“We have even become quite superstitious,” smiles Edita Bagdonaitė, one of those who has been with the choir since its first rehearsal.
“For instance, it is now a good sign for us if several singers fall ill or the bus is held up for a few hours at the border on our journey. Or if things begin to disappear just before the performance. And if everything goes smoothly, then it’s time to worry: maybe we won’t do well in the competition.”
As for inauspicious and yet optimistic signs, the trip to the European Grand Prix competition was an exceptional one. Almost half the 28-strong choir fell ill at some point, were coughing or had sore throats. Instantly, honey, hot tea and various kinds of pills began to circulate on the bus, which the singers nicknamed “a hospital on wheels”.
“It looked really terrible,” recalls Saulius Laurinaitis, one of the choir’s most experienced singers.
“Half the choir were literally unable to produce a normal note. But just one day before the competition, suddenly everything improved. That’s when you have to speak of having a really strong will.”
But will alone is not enough to make the French audience break the strict “no applause during the performance” rule. It takes music, in the deepest sense of the word, to produce an outburst of applause when there is still one piece left.
“I just wanted to cry after we had finished,” recalls Donatas Tarasevičius, a singer who was taking part in a top-level competition for the first time.
“I felt tired and absolutely exhausted, although we were on the stage for only twenty minutes. That glorious feeling of joyous emptiness is really worth living for.”
Cream of the Cream
As the choir is now barred for two years from participating in important European competitions, because it won the Grand Prix, it is almost sure that more innovative projects will be in the pipeline. This is because Venislovas believes that the choir will die if it stops at what it has achieved. Even if it’s the top trophy in Europe.
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