King David and the final carving

The Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative is having its annual conference in less than 2 weeks, and we’re part of the starring cast. Sort of. You see. A couple of years back Chuck Phelps, then provost of the U of Rochester and for whom we built an extraordinary home in the 90’s, introduced me to Hans Davidsson, an absolutely unstoppable man with the tenacity of three. Suddenly we were remodeling Christ Church, flying to Lithuania to understand late-period Baroque architecture and organs (and eating eel-by-the-meter, a local specialty,) and carving pipeshades and figures. It’s complicated. But here’s a passage I’ll share, written on the first of my 3 trips to Vilnius, in preparation for this upcoming inauguration of our work:

“The first time I went to Lithuania, on this crazy organ project, we were being lead around by a strong-presenced woman who was surely going to show us her country, her city, her history. Birute had lived in the US most of her life, but never left Vilnius in her heart. It showed in everything from the golf-ball sized amber broach on her breast to her eyes that misted up regarding anything Lithuanian. We had just met, and my first impression wasn’t good.. I would later tell her, and she never let’s me live it down, that I figured she was simply “over the top,” in a typically dangerous and nationalistic way.

I had just finished reading a wrenching account of the slaughter of the entire local Jewish population under the Nazi occupation. Maxine’s father’s family had come to America at the turn of the last century, during one of the czar’s pogroms, but the wing of the family that stayed behind had perished in Kaunas, a beautiful city that was once the heart of Jewish intellectualism and culture in the Baltics. It wasn’t just the invading Nazi’s who were brutal to the Jews; it was the nationalists as well. Coupled with my own innate distaste for blind and unquestioning patriotism in any country, and having just finished that book which had brought me to tears, I was on edge to hear her go on and on. The Lithuanian culture, the land, the language, the brains, even the bread! It was all the best, and getting better. Even the women were the most beautiful, according to Birute.

But over the days of that trip I did learn to appreciate what the people there were in the midst of accomplishing. There was a marked line drawn between what was obviously bad remnants of the soviet era and what was being re-built, cleaned up and newly minted. Downtown Vilnius is thriving, and plenty of healthy signs of economy, industry, creativity. It’s been just 14 years since the last freedom, and so much has been done. I’m told that it is the fastest growing economy in Europe. One of my pictures recently is from the steeple of St. Catherine’s, a Benedictine church almost brought back from its status as storage shed for decades. In the vertical format panorama are old soviet apartment buildings in the far distance, four tower cranes in a clearly modern area, and then nearby, in the old city, a crumbling roof structure that was being discussed to become a hotel by some Norwegian investors. Lots going on, lots of layers.

Before that week was out, I had come to appreciate how much work had been done, and grew to appreciate much of what my guide was saying. All the tension dissipated at once when, after a morning run, I came up to Birute and said, “I will now believe everything you say, for the women here are in fact the most beautiful in the world!” Since then we’ve been grand friends, and yes, she, like much if her country, is really over the top.”