Bjella returns from stint in Lithuania

Elena Amesbury

Earlier this month, Concert Choir and Chorale lacked a conductor for almost two weeks. Rick Bjella, Director of Choral Studies, had flown to Lithuania.
He was there to guest conduct Polifonija, a professional choir based in Siauliai, one of the larger cities in Lithuania.
The conductor of Polifonija, Gediminas Ramanauskas, heard Concert Choir and Women’s Choir perform in Omaha this spring as a part of the American Choral Directors Association division convention.
He was blown away and approached Bjella to invite him to conduct his choir.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” laughed Bjella, remembering how strange he thought the request was at the time. But Ramanauskas was serious, and soon they had some tentative dates planned for the visit.
Ramanauskas had recently begun conducting Polifonija, replacing the previous conductor who had been there for nearly 25 years.
Bjella believes that Ramanauskas’ goal in his new role as conductor is to expand the knowledge and ability of the group by introducing international music. The best way to accomplish this goal is to host guest conductors from around the world.
Bjella compiled a repertoire of music from North, Central and South America for the choir to sing. The music represented six languages including Inuit, Portuguese, English and Spanish.
The choir had only three days of rehearsal with Bjella before they performed. They started their tour in Kelme, then traveled to Kaunas and Vilnius, the nation’s capital, before heading back to the choir’s home in Siauliai.
The concert in Vilnius was one of the more memorable moments for Bjella. “The chorus sang at a very high level,” he recalled. “There was an immediate standing ovation, and I think there were three U.S. ambassadors there, and they raving about the concert afterward.”
After the performance, the members of the chorus went to a supermarket nearby and bought food to take on the bus home. It was a sort of a “party atmosphere,” as Bjella called it.
In conducting Polifonija, Bjella noticed differences in the singing technique and style of the chorus.
“The influence of the Russian culture makes for aggressive, forced music. They do it very well, but the lyricness of Shenandoah becomes more difficult to transmit.”
Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, so the Russian influences are still quite strong.
Bjella had a translator to ease the language barrier but besides that, cultural differences were not that huge.
Half the choir smoked, everyone considered coffee breaks essential and the women dressed a bit classier. They were not extravagant in color or material items, Bjella noted.
He commented that “they are a reserved people. The idea of presenting music which was quite emotional took awhile.”
Once back in Appleton, Bjella continued to prepare for the Forgotten Peoples and Kaleidoscope concerts, this Friday, Oct. 20 and Saturday, Oct. 21, respectively.