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An interview with Assoc. Prof. Dr. Judita Žukienė, Rector of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and a musicologist.

This year, the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary. For our school, this is a remarkable year linking a time-honoured tradition and a frenetic present. The Academy’s community is starting the anniversary year by revealing itself to the public even more: we’re preparing a wide range of festivals, concerts, staged plays, various performances at the LMTA halls, Lithuanian concert spaces, Gediminas Avenue and Lukiškių Square in Vilnius, and other venues. We’re having a conversation with the LMTA Rector, musicologist, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Judita Žukienė, as we are curious to open wide the Academy’s doors, behind which you would observe lots of work in full swing.

Laimutė Ligeikaitė
7 meno dienos 

LMTA Rector Assoc. Prof. Dr. Judita Žukienė (c) D. Matvejev

You have been part of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre for over 30 years – since the beginning of your studies in 1991. As a music historian, beyond any doubt, you have been observing and following the development of this school. So, my first question is related to the most recent times: in your view, since the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, which milestones of the LMTA transformation can be highlighted as the ones leading to what and where the Academy is today?

After the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, the expansion of the LMTA has been smooth and consistent (particularly, in terms of the study fields and programmes). The Academy has withstood transformations of higher education reforms and today it is a higher education institution that provides studies to music, theatre, film, and dance artists and researchers. During this period, the name of our school has changed twice: in 1992, the Lithuanian State Conservatory was given a name of the Lithuanian Academy of Music, and in 2004, the theatre direction – the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA) – was included in the name. One of the most prominent changes during this period took place in 1993 when the Academy started training film artists. So, this year is also special for the LMTA Department of Film and TV – it is celebrating its 30th anniversary. In addition, we are delighted to have dance artists under the one roof. We also foster knowledge and experience in art pedagogy and art therapy.

These thirty years have seen various transformations and migrations. The LMTA Kaunas Faculty has become part of Vytautas Magnus University. And the Klaipeda Faculty, after having been part of Klaipėda University for a couple of decades, reunited with the LMTA in 2018. It is obvious that by being together, by pooling all the resources, we can achieve much more.

We can easily state that the LMTA is the main higher education institution offering studies for professional music, theater, film, and dance artists. The school covers an incredibly wide range of professions, its graduates fill almost all the niches of the art world in Lithuania (and abroad). Unquestionably, it is a large institution that operates in Vilnius and Klaipėda. What helps and what disrupts a stable activity of this complex mechanism?

Shared beliefs and values enable creators and researchers belonging to different generations and art fields to find a common language and be part of the whole without losing their identity. The LMTA 2030 Strategy declares unanimity within our community as a value which is imperative for all of us: “Openness and sustainability, creativity, identity, academic freedom, responsibility and tolerance, equal opportunities for all, and the unity of our community.” Clearly, in a large institution, some processes are more challenging to manage, we may occasionally face problems, and communication becomes more complicated. In such cases, it is important to identify the issue in a  timely manner, find the cause and solve the problem in a systematic way to avoid its recurrence.  We do spend a lot of time on this. I am happy that we have students who often initiate relevant questions and at the same time become involved in finding the solutions. Sometimes, I’m amazed at the creativity with which representatives of different art directions and specialisations find the common denominator for their activity. Maybe, it happens because the process of creating art on stage and screen implies lots of cooperation, and without it you cannot even imagine, for example, making a film or staging an opera performance.

How would you describe the Academy’s relevance in the cultural life of present-day Lithuania? Is the Academy by itself capable of enduring the overall discouraging cultural situation, the spread of second-rate “art”? Is the LMTA visible enough to stimulate the society’s need for timeless values? What can help you? And what can become an obstacle?

It’s obvious that the Academy does not only fulfill the mission of educating aspiring artists for Lithuania and the world; it also unites the most prominent contemporary music, theater, film, and dance artists and researchers for joint activities, for assessment of prospects and insights. Our teaching staff are proactive members of the world of culture and art: they participate in the development of cultural policy and the activities of creative organisations. By providing education to the young, we are eager to provide them with the respect for fundamental values and openness to innovation. Yet, developing taste, fostering the need for higher values, and raising the prestige of the artist’s profession is a complex task that requires involvement of a wider range of stakeholders.

Now, speaking generally, what was the role of the appearance of this institution at the outset of the 20th century in the history of the formation of Lithuania as a state?

The establishment of the conservatory was an ambitious dream of our musicians (Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Česlovas Sasnauskas, Juozas Naujalis, Juozas Tallat-Kelpša, Teodoras Brazys, Stasys Šimkus, etc.) of the beginning of the 20th century. The need for professional musicians and the importance of a national higher education music school were perceived immediately after Lithuania’s restoration of independence, and this was not going to be postponed to better times. Already in 1919, when in Lithuania three hostile forces and their armies were simultaneously trying to usurp our territories and freedom, when the life was hard and tense, the state provided funding for a music school founded by Juozas Naujalis. The music school became state-owned (1920) and was an influential culture hub where the most prominent music teachers of the time, young composers and music performers returning from their studies in the West to share novelties were teaching.

The residents of Kaunas would informally refer to the school as a conservatory long before this name was legalised. Due to the lack of premises in Kaunas and the lack of funds, the reorganisation of the music school into a higher education institution was taking a long time. As the then-capital of a European state could not be imagined without an opera house and a conservatory, the establishment of the Conservatory in Kaunas in 1933 completed the stage of institutionalization of professional musical art in Lithuania. This step ensured preservation and development of the traditions of national art, provided the foundations for the teaching tradition of today.

From those earlier days of the Academy, is there a saying, a lesson or an event that you can personally relate to and that is valuable or interesting to you? Perhaps, there is a historical personality you admire?

Recently, I’ve had a chance to delve deeper into the circumstances of the establishment of the Conservatory, and in this context, the portrait of composer Juozas Naujalis, the founder and director of Kaunas Music School, has gained new colours for me. Juozas Naujalis is, in fact, the first director of our school who developed the first professional music education programme in Lithuania (from courses for organists to the programme of the Lithuanian Conservatory), built a competent teaching team and managed to obtain an entire building for the Conservatory. The documents stored in the archives reveal the adversities Naujalis was facing while transforming the school – consistently and patiently – into a conservatory. Some of the lines from the director’s documents (written a century ago) sound as if they are from today: “We are able to enrol only one quarter out of those who are willing to study”, “we need to build a new building for the school”, etc. Naujalis is an inspiring example of the relentless pursuit of the set goal.

For a higher education institution, undeniably, the most important part is students. Have you noticed how young people change with each generation – from their worldview, mindset to their everyday commitment, responsibilities and behaviour?

It is obvious that generations of students are changing and it is this change that guarantees the continuity and renewal of a higher education institution. I can get a first-hand view of how the students’ tastes, self-expression, and needs are changing. The same pieces of music receive a variety of reactions, opinions and expectations are expressed in a different way, and more and more new challenges related to studies are arising. Yet, it encourages you to rethink the content of studies, revise tasks and look for other means of motivation. Each student generation reveals new opportunities, new points of view, and inspires us to renew, modify, search for new points of contact between generations. I’ve learned a lot from my students.

I think you’ve also heard people saying that “almost anyone can get on stage, sing, jump, and act. What can you study there for four or six years?”, and so on. How would you reply?

Such considerations might be possible if you did not have direct encounters with professional art. If you go to the theater, a concert hall or the cinema, such questions will disappear. At the LMTA, we develop not only the mastery of the creative work or performance of young artists, we also develop a broader knowledge of art processes, structure, and laws, and we teach to evaluate and think critically. We educate artists who are prepared for independent work and creative process, for future changes and challenges, who are able not to replicate or reproduce, but to create, and this all is based on long-term work, a wide scope of knowledge. After all, our current first-year student will be creating or performing in the 2050s.

Other qualities of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre that are of no less (and perhaps even more) significance than a long-standing tradition are modernity and novelty. You will have even better conditions for the modernisation of studies after moving into the new campus of the Academy (which is currently being constructed). What are the indications of the Academy’s modernity and what prospects will open in the new place?

We’ve always understood and emphasised that we are providing education to the creators of the art of the future. Openness and tolerance for innovation is one of the fundamental values of the LMTA community. However, to remain relevant, you need daily efforts, new impulses, and the appropriate conditions. The Academy’s campus is one more dream of artists of different fields to study, collaborate, create together, and this dream is gradually becoming reality. Yet, new premises with state-of-the-art equipment are only a prerequisite. Who is going to teach and study in those new premises is far more important. That’s why, we pay a lot of attention to internationality, creating numerous opportunities for teachers and students to gain experience from foreign schools, updating the content of study programmes and strengthening competencies.

Staying modern means living for tomorrow every day. By understanding and building on the experience of long-standing traditions, focusing on long-lasting value and timeless beliefs and values, constantly renewing ourselves and boldly implementing innovations, we can preserve the likelihood that we will still be relevant to future generations. I have no doubt that the LMTA has a very reasonable chance.

Thank you for the conversation.

English translation by Viltė Gridasova 
24 January 2023