“Singing is my greatest passion”, explained Justė Andrikonytė, coordinator for International Studies (for selection and Erasmus+ practice) at the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University. This is her 15th year of membership in the Vilnius semi-professional choir Jauna Muzika. Last year the choir performed in Japan. A total of 14 concerts were organised during the month-long tour.

Part of a choir since the age of 5

Music has been a constant companion in Justė’s life since childhood. At the age of 5, she joined one of the strongest choirs in Lithuania: the National Radio and Television Children’s Choir. “We performed many concerts and recorded a great deal for the radio. Almost every Thursday we made recordings from our choir’s repertoire. I got used to an intense pace. There were stages in my life when it seemed like there was a bit too much of everything; I would quit then for a while but I would always come back again,” Justė said.

Recalling the time spent with the choir of the Jesuit Gymnasium in Vilnius, she said, “One could say our generation was dedicated; we would continue to sing in the choir for a few years even after our graduation from school. Even after I had finished my undergraduate studies, I went to the Lithuanian Song Festival in Chicago with the gymnasium choir. Later I went abroad to study for my master’s degree and stopped my engagement with music for a while.”

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Personal J. Andrikonytė's photographs.

After a 2-year break, Justė returned to Lithuania and naturally became involved in music-related activities once again. She participated in the activities of the Ensemble of the Divine Mercy Shrine of Vilnius. Later, she decided to try her luck at an audition for Jauna Muzika. Then everything seemed to gain momentum: project followed project until Justė finally became a permanent member of this chamber choir. Fifteen years have gone by since then.

“Singing is my greatest passion. Jauna Muzika is a semi-professional choir that receives royalties and almost all members of the choir are professional choir conductors. I also regularly improve the quality of my singing by attending private singing classes. I find it very interesting to explore myself as a singer, to explore my voice. The voice is always associated with both physical and psychological well-being, because it is a part of the body. Private lessons help me feel better in the choir and give me more self-confidence. It’s not just a pleasure, because if you want to do things well, you have to put in the work,” Justė stated.

Choir tour in Japan

Last autumn, the Vilnius city choir toured in Japan, the land of the rising sun. “The planning had taken about 3 years. Although the tour was supposed to take place earlier, the pandemic forced us to change our plans. We travelled around the country for a month and performed fourteen solo concerts in various cities. Each concert consisted of two parts. In part one, we performed Lithuanian music and in part two we performed various pieces of secular music, including several Japanese pieces,” Justė said.

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Personal J. Andrikonytė's photographs.

Justė was most surprised by the opportunity to perform in large concert halls with audiences of 1,000–2,000 people. “This is a huge audience for an a cappella choir; it’s really a lot. We’re not used to such big audiences. We were very excited and pleased to perform for so many people! We were impressed that the Japanese knew where Lithuania was. They even brought posters to the concerts written in Lithuanian saying, “I liked it very much” and so on. This means they got prepared for the concert and translated the phrases into Lithuanian without knowing if they would like the concert,” she said.

Justė noted that it was difficult to understand whether the audience liked the concert: “They were very reserved. At the end of the second part of the concert, we performed a song that is very important in Japan. During our rendition, the audience began to cry and applaud, so we witnessed emotions only at the end of the concert. We were told that the Japanese love to communicate with performers after the concerts and exchange gifts. However, we did not experience this because of the COVID-19 restrictions still in force in Japan at the time,” Justė explained.

Precision, a lot of people, and an interest in the West

Justė went on to describe how she had the opportunity to witness how precise and organised the Japanese were: the concert tour had been planned to the very last detail. The performances took place every other day, so the members of the choir had some time to get acquainted with the traditions and culture of Japan.

“I was interested in the cultural and religious aspects of Japan. Although Shintoism and Buddhism dominate, there are also a lot of agnostics. We visited many temples and saw a traditional Japanese wedding. Such weddings are rare, however, because the younger generation looks to the West and wants a Western-style wedding with a white bridal dress and a priest. They also try to recreate scenes from films,” Justė said, sharing her impressions.

Although interest in Western culture is growing in Japan, it seems rather strange that local people speak English very poorly or do not speak it at all. Justė thought that perhaps the reason was the absence of English language classes in school. “It turns out that English is taught in schools in Japanese. Maybe there is a lack of motivation. I really liked the fact that the Japanese are very helpful. They are always happy, smiling, and have something to say to you in Japanese. Even if they see that you are not Japanese, they still try to explain sincerely and patiently, but nevertheless in Japanese,” Justė remembered, smiling.

Of course, the huge amount of people did not go unnoticed. In Lithuania we have the luxury of space. This is not the case in Japan. They are always in crowds. “But there is no chaos, they don’t climb over each other’s heads. There’s order everywhere; even at the bus stop waiting for the bus or at a crossing, they line up. I had the impression that they are used to living this way among crowds of people and that it is not a problem for them.”

A feeling of responsibility to talk about the war in Ukraine

Justė said she noticed that the bombing of Japan during WWII was a huge challenge for both the country and the people’s psyche. The choir visited the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Memorial Museums, which record Japan’s painful history and show the world the effects of the atomic bombs.

“Japan is trying to disarm, to maintain peace. In one of the hotels, we received a newspaper in English every morning, and it discussed the most important issues in Japan. It was interesting to see what they were. The Japanese feel rising threats in the world, and write a lot about China, the importance of strengthening their own defences, and maintaining contacts with their allies, the United States and NATO. Japan suffered much destruction as a result of the war, so their rebuilt cities look modern and futuristic. There are few authentic old buildings remaining,” Justė said.

She noted that the members of Jauna Muzika also felt the responsibility to talk about the Russian war in Ukraine. They dedicated one of the pieces of their programme to the Ukrainian soldiers who have died and those who continue to risk their lives.

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