It goes without saying, that the virtuoso accordionist MARTYNAS LEVICKIS needs no introduction to the Lithuanian audience. Furthermore, he is, undeniably, a mega star of our musical scene. A celebrity accordionist, you might wonder with some bemusement? Are we talking about the same archaic instrument that evokes memories of the giddy uncles at our village weddings or those poor souls squeezing out weepy chansons in draughty corridors of the London tube? To be perfectly honest, once upon a time I thought exactly the same. So, it would be rather befitting to start my tale with partaking of some, well deserved, humble pie.
More than a decade ago, my father, who was posted to London as a deputy head of the Lithuanian mission, had the privilege to meet a lot of wonderfully talented individuals from Lithuanian diaspora in the UK. In those days, Martynas was just beginning his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and starting his career as a music teacher at the Bishop Challoner Catholic School. From their first encounter, my father was mesmerised by his talent and charisma and kept inviting us along to see the early performances of what he called ‘this talented chap with the harmonica’ (or as Martynas himself jokingly calls ‘squeeze-box’). Call it as you wish, but the instrument still came with the stigma of mothballs attached. So to my greatest regret, I never made it to see Martynas' earliest performances, the memories of which would be now considered very valuable vintage collectable pieces.
Fast forward then to November 2020, when Martynas released his second album, Martynas Levickis-Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (recorded with Mikroorkéstra Chamber Ensemble and guitarist Chris Ruebens). By then he was well known, not only in his native Lithuania, but in the musical world at large, as the ‘talented chap’ who singlehandedly changed the image of his beloved instrument, presenting it in a completely new and fashionably cool light.
Of course, all of this success and recognition did not happen overnight. So it was fascinating to hear from Martynas himself, as to how this love affair had begun, between an exceptionally talented and forward thinking musician and an instrument which in his capable hands seemed to have unlimited potential.
It began, as things usually do, at the beginning. Or in other words, at the musical school in his hometown Šiauliai (Lithuania). Both of Martynas’ lifelong passion, the accordion and musical teaching (or educating, as he calls it), emerged at a tender age during his first year at that school. Neither of these skills made him very popular amongst his peers. It was not unusual for the future maestro to be teased for dragging around his squeeze-box, or indeed for being asked by his teacher to conduct the lesson in her stead (which Martynas adored); one suspects that his classmates were not overly pleased by him being singled out. But in both cases he just persevered. When in his early teens an opportunity presented itself to participate in the International Accordionists competition in Italy, Martynas left very little to chance. Every day he would bicycle to his teacher’s house, go upstairs and, it being high summer, with all the windows open he would play for twelve hours each day, as his teacher went about her chores of cooking or weeding her garden, and at the same time listening to her pupil's practice. Another obstacle, that of not actually possessing a professional instrument required to enter the competition, was swiftly overcome by borrowing one. Yet still, one wonders, if even with all this preparation, Martynas did not feel petrified having found himself abroad for the first time, performing in front of the highly esteemed jury members with... a borrowed instrument?! Martynas smiles at my question, and wistfully recalls his childish bravado. It did not seem such a big deal. His inner child did not feel any fear or intimidation. He just went on and played. So in 2003 Martynas Levickis won and was awarded the first place at the Premio di Montese competition in Italy. And so our star was born.
Yet the journey was not without a hurdle. At the Royal Academy of Music, and even with quite a few awards under his belt, Martynas was often ridden by self-doubt, questioning his self-value and even shying of his cultural identity, not wanting to appear different (who doesn't?). Initially the language barrier proved to be a huge obstacle in communicating with his new colleagues and professors. Upon arrival in London, it soon transpired that all of Martynas’ knowledge of English from school was only on paper. He therefore found it difficult to express himself and withdrew into his own inner world. Eventually, when he started making friends, Martynas was surprised that his differences and his national identity were very much of appeal to his foreign friends. Their genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about Lithuania came as a big surprise. Yet despite this new-found interest as to his heritage, he still wanted to side-step Lithuanian folk songs and aspired to become a classical musician. The path towards his goal was not easy. During the first half-year at the Academy, Martynas spent working on just one sound. Impatiently he waited for the final approval from his professor, who kept encouraging him. It's coming, it's coming. Keep trying. Martynas says that his Samogitian stubbornness helped him in more ways than one and he kept trying, despite his inner doubts. Thus a confident, devoted and determined musician emerged at the other end of graduation.
I hope my narrative, so far, persuaded you that M. Levickis indeed can play accordion well (to say the least). But if anyone has had the privilege of seeing him on stage or even on YouTube playing as a team leader with an orchestra, one would admit that it is another exceptional talent of his. I have used the term team leader instead of a conductor here on purpose. Martynas admits, that working with a group is very important to him. The result of teamwork is always a very important moral achievement. Either working with a classroom or with an orchestra, the process of simultaneous learning yields a gain for both parties. So he is never just a remote orchestra leader behind a conductor's stand. Martynas is there with his musicians both body and soul, leading them not only in to the right key or tempo, but into a magically unique and emotionally charged rendition of each piece they play together.
However, the beginning of this, now seemingly effortless leadership, was again not without its mishaps.
This story also begins... at the beginning. Again, several decades ago in London, the then nineteen-year-old student of the Royal Academy of Music was accepted to fill the position of a music teacher at the Bishop Challoner Catholic School (in East London). Martynas still vividly remembers the very first lesson he taught there and recounts it with every single detail. Upon entering the classroom, he was encountered by a group of twenty pre-schoolers sitting in deathly silence, their huge eyes blinking and all twenty pairs of them were staring intently at him. Blink-blink. Right, so what does one do to break this silence? Eventually he managed to, but this breakthrough did not happen overnight. Martynas fondly remembers the support of the then headmistress, Nijole Jankauskiene, who assisted him in taking his first steps in musical education activities, about which Martynas has subsequently been very passionate. It seems that in teaching those kids to understand and appreciate music, Martynas has taught himself how to convey his passion by finding the right rapport with every single group. Or striking the right cord with his audience.
Oh, but I digress. Let's go back to the album Martynas Levickis - Vivaldi: The Four Seasons.
When I downloaded it from iTunes, I inhaled it all in one greedy gulp. Then repeated the pleasure again, and again, as the more you listen to it, the more there is to hear. In fact, I loved it so much, that the idea stuck me to share with our readers this beguiling impression that Martyna's version of Vivaldi's masterpiece left on me. Though I am neither a music expert nor a critic, I was so very thrilled when the maestro enthusiastically agreed to help me and to answer a few questions. Even so it is difficult to put in words the effect of his music. So perhaps I could use some visual parallels, as it would be a crime to describe it using just some dry musical jargon. So what do I see when I listen to his interpretation of summer winds, autumn mists, winter frosts and spring blooms emerging from the loudspeaker? Indeed, the sounds of nature are very tangible, as the composer himself points out and he tried to add and incorporate as many sounds of the great outdoors as possible: the humming of bees, the tweeting of birds, the chiming of gusts of wind. Yes, it is all there, unexpectedly expected, giving the well known original a new, fresher sound. Yet the solid presence of a familiar voice of much beloved classical piece is more than palpable. In my mind, I see it all as a dialogue between a grey-haired old master and a young, very respectful but confident youngster who politely questions and teases the traditional sound into the vigorous vibration of a new generation, but neither upstaging nor treading on the toes of the original. The secret behind this impeccably balanced harmony between the old and the new, as Martynas revealed, is the lesson well learned from his student days at the Royal Academy of Music. There they all had a maxim drilled into them that when creating a new version of a classical music piece, it must sound truly unique and original, and any plagiarism should be avoided at all costs. And so this is where the magical and multidimensional sound of the accordion comes in. Martynas’ instrument adds a completely new sound to the well known melody, in some places blending in and leaving the listener wondering whether these are sounds of the string instruments or something else. And then, as if on cue, suddenly soaring above everything else in its full accordionistic glory, this mighty instrument bellows boldly, sounding again like itself. As if the flirtation with the contrasts was not enough, Martynas introduces another unexpected instrument to this mix. The quiver of the guitar. As the maestro enlightens me, this was a very deliberate attempt to add some foreign spice, even echoing the Middle Eastern calls for prayers from the dusty minarets.
The final result is tastefully risqué, pleasantly shocking and very much bewitching. And that's only the music. But let's not forget... the pauses. To be precise the pauses relate to the way he is using temporary silence to enhance the sound. They start quite demurely and then span as briefly or as lengthy as it is needed to leave listeners well intrigued by what is coming next. The composer is very pleased that I noticed them, as they can result only from the well-oiled teamwork. His musicians are well aware that the pause that is indicated in the score might last as long as intended or might be held as long as it takes to send shivers down the audience's spines. Even in this recording, the element of improvisation is pretty much in evidence and Martynas gives full credit to his musicians for achieving that.
I must admit, this article was very long in the making. In the meantime, another outstanding album Piazzolla: Aconcagua & Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas was released by Martynas (to commemorate the centenary of the legendary Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla). But I have quite noticeably ran out of allocated column inches and frankly, believing that out of all Martyna's recordings, this inspiration stemming from Piatzzolla's music, lusty passion of tango and smoky intrigue of Argentinian milonga, needs to be listened to instead of being read about (you will find both the above-mentioned albums and indeed much more at www.martynasmusic.com).
I would like to end my lengthy narrative... at the beginning. The moral of this story, if there is one, is not to quench one's Inner Child but to follow its innocent bravery and believe in its fearless dream. It looks like, and despite his own admission that he should evoke that child within himself more often, Martynas' journey from the small town music school (via the most prestigious musical learning establishment) to the fulfilment of his dream to create his own orchestra, win many many awards and acknowledgements and enjoy sold-out performances all over the world, really does prove the truism, that if you love what you do… you will end up doing what you love.
PS. A quick Post Script about Martynas’ alma mater and London. He still has a very soft spot for the city of his beginnings, and hopes to be able to visit and perform in London more often in the future, even perhaps teaching a Master Class at the RAM. So we very much hope that this special connection will lure Martynas back to London's stage and we will see him perform in the flesh.