Article published in the Providence Journal

04-07-2001 13:35

93-year-old composer went from greatness to obscurity


Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) - Jeronimas Kacinskas sits in a faded green chair in his cramped apartment, a photocopy of a 1932 concert program in his hand. The 93-year-old gingerly gets up, drops the program on his chair, and sits down at the dusty upright piano leaning against one wall. His still-nimble fingers start playing familiar notes he wrote long ago. For a moment he recaptures the glory that was once routinely his.

A tiny South Boston walkup is an unexpected place to find a composer so revered that he was honored by his native country eight years ago with three weeks of televised concerts.

But Kacinskas, a former conductor of the Vilnius Philharmonic - at the time, Lithuania's most prestigious orchestra - has quietly lived in the Boston area for more than five decades.

On Sunday, the Berklee College of Music, where he taught for almost 20 years, will host a concert featuring music exclusively composed by Kacinskas, including some pieces that date back to 1932. The school hopes the concert will expose Kacinskas' works to a wider audience.

"I never expected any of this to happen," said Kacinskas, who still composes even though he is losing his hearing. "I'm so honored that anyone still cares about my work."

The fact that any of Kacinskas' pre-war works still exist is somewhat miraculous. Kacinskas, a brilliant piano player from the age of 11, had to flee Lithuania in 1944. He left all his original compositions behind. No recordings were ever made of his work, and even his concert reviews were destroyed.

His most praised composition, "Nonet" - which composer Bela Bartok said was one of the most distinguished pieces in the music festival where it premiered - was obliterated when the house where he left it was bombarded by Russian soldiers.

"There is absolutely no question about it. He was one of the most talented Lithuanian composers and musicians," said John Rackauskas, the president of Chicago-based Lithuanian Research and Studies Center. "He did religious music. He did vocal music. He did chamber music. He did everything."

He didn't, however, agree with the Russian and German soldiers that had been controlling Lithuania - and attending his orchestra's rehearsals.

"He fought with them constantly," said his wife, Elena. "When the orchestra was rehearsing, he'd say, 'Get Out!' He wasn't scared."

One of the soldiers complained about Kacinskas to the Russian secret police, which placed various restrictions on him. Kacinskas also refused to respond to the Nazi greeting, "Heil Hitler," which endangered him even more.

By 1944, his name had been included on a list of people condemned to death or exile. He spent the next five years hiding out in different parts of Europe.

He finally made it to Boston in 1949, where he took a job as an organist at a Lithuanian church.

After a few years, he was asked to participate in a concert given by Lithuanians at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, then took part in another concert with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

But he missed his chance to take an associate conductor's opening at the National because of the language barrier.

"His English wasn't good enough for him to understand what they were asking," said John Bavicchi, professor emeritus of composition at Berklee and Kacinskas' good friend. "(The manager) said, 'What are you doing now?' and he told them, but he didn't say what he had done."

Bavicchi convinced Berklee to hire Kacinskas in 1967. Though he was well-regarded at the school, his music was not often performed by notable orchestras.

In 1987, however, "glasnost" came to Lithuania - and with it, a new appreciation for Kacinskas' works. A music school was named after him in the city of Klaipeda. In 1993, he went back to his native land for the first time to receive the Lithuanian National Prize. The honor was celebrated with televised concerts.

Shortly after the first concert in Lithuania, a Berklee alumnus found part of "Nonet" in a Prague music archive. Though the composition was incomplete, Bavicchi finished it with the help of a computer. "Nonet" will be performed at Sunday's concert.

Kacinskas says he isn't bitter about how his life turned out, though he admits that he didn't exactly plan to end up in a South Boston apartment. He says he still has his piano, his wife, and his life - and that's more than any Lithuanian caught up in the chaos of World War II had any right to expect.

"I was always satisfied with what I had. Because I was a stranger, I couldn't expect much," Kacinskas says, as he turns away from the piano. "I always live with the conditions I am given."

Copyright © 2001 The Providence Journal Company