Vernikov, Piccotti, Voltchok, Čepaitė / YES Orchestra
Beethoven / Mendelssohn

Musical Theater, Basel, 2019-05-23

3-star rating

2019-05-27 — Original posting
2019-06-01 — Additional photos (courtesy Adrija Čepaitė & Konzertgesellschaft Basel)
2019-06-04 — More photos (courtesy NO-TE e.U., Vienna)


Adrija Čepaitė
Adrija Čepaitė

Introduction

Back to Basel for a concert at the Musical Theater Basel, one of the city’s “substitute venues” for concerts, as long as the Stadtcasino Basel is in renovation (it will re-open next year). This concert was organized by the Konzertgesellschaft Basel. It was the last one of this season’s “Volkssinfoniekonzerte” (“people’s symphony concerts”). It featured two works:

Program

Conductor / Orchestra

Adrija Čepaitė

The young, Lithuanian conductor Adrija Čepaitė is at the beginning of her career. She graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius, then continued her education at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz / Austria, where she earned a Master Degree in choral conducting, Church music with specialization in Gregorian chant and orchestra conducting. 2013 – 2015, Adrija Čepaitė was teaching conducting at the Vytautas Magnus University Music Academy in Lithuania, and since 2008, she has been invited to lead Gregorian chant master classes all over Europe.

Adrija Čepaitė also is co-founder and leader of the “Graces & Voices” international female vocal ensemble formed in 2011. She now is expanding the scope of her conducting, Since 2018, Adrija Čepaitė has been invited to conduct the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, also in Lithuania.

In 2013, Adrija Čepaitė started working with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra in Vilnius. She now is one of the ensemble’s conductors.

YES Orchestra

Back in 2016, a friend pointed me to a concert of the YES (Young Eurasian Soloists) Orchestra. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend that concert in Zurich. Only the year after, I followed another invitation to attend a small-scale concert with this ensemble (then as Chamber Orchestra with baroque and classic repertoire) in Zurich, on 2017-11-22. See that review for more information on the ensemble.

The encounter with the orchestra in this concert showed a mid-size ensemble. It’s much smaller than a typical symphony orchestra, but bigger than a chamber music formation. The ensemble calls itself “YES Orchestra”, despite its moderate sitze. It is by far not the only ensemble with “in-between” size. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe—just to pick one prominent example—is definitely bigger than the YES Orchestra, but still calls itself “chamber orchestra”. With its foundation in 2015, four years ago, the orchestra consists of young musicians only, probably around their mid-20s up to the early 30’s.

Naturally, the orchestra (initially) ages with its members. On their Website (still “yesorchestra.ch”), the name has recently changed to “ES Chamber Orchestra” / “Eurasian Soloists Chamber Orchestra”. Though, of course, at this point, the “Young” still applies.

Soloists

Pavel Vernikov, violin

The Ukrainian violinist Pavel Vernikov (Павел Верников) grew up in Odessa. He was a student of David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974) and Semyon Snitkovsky (1933 – 1981). Vernikov now is a faculty member of the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna. He also teaches at the Sion branch of the Haute École de Musique de Lausanne (HÉMU). Pavel Vernikov plays on a 1747 instrument by Gianbattista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786), Piacenza (“ex Contessa Crespi, ex Brengola”)

Erica Piccotti, cello

The Italian cellist Erica Piccotti, cello (*1999, Roma / Italy, see also Wikipedia.de) initially studied at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, from 2013 on at the University of the Arts Bern, and since 2017 at the Kronberg Academy in Germany. Erica Piccotti plays on a 1692 cello by Francesco Ruggeri (1628 – 1698), Cremona.

Anastasia Voltchok, piano

Anastasia Voltchok grew up in Moscow, debuted at age 8 with a piano concerto by Haydn. In 2003, she graduated with a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Maryland and won a Gold Medal at the World Piano competition in Cincinnati. Since her debut, Anastasia Voltchok is touring all over Europe and through the US. See the artist’s Website for details on her biography.

Setting, etc.

My wife and I had seats 23 and 24 in the center of row 20 in the rear third of the stall seating. The venue was fairly full, the audience consisted of predominantly elderly people. I did not receive permission to take photos, so all I have is a few iPhone shots of very modest quality (sorry!).


Beethoven: Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, op.56, “Triple Concerto”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, op.56, now known as “Triple Concerto”, in 1803, two years prior to writing his Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58. As all concerts by Beethoven, the triple concerto is known well enough, to allow me to refer to Wikipedia for further information. Beethoven wrote this five piano concertos for himself, into his own, virtuosic hands. In contrast, it is worth knowing that the composer write the piano part of the Triple Concerto for his royal pupil, the Archduke Rudolf of Austria. This explains the relatively easy piano part. This again may be the reason why pianists may not be so keen on performing this work. The concerto has three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Largo —
  3. Rondo alla polacca

Stage Setup

I did not try getting an accurate count of the orchestra’s musicians (the program leaflet did not include a staff list). The YES Orchestra appeared to include just under 30 musicians, with less than 20 string players, from left to right: the two violin voices (4 + 4?), around 4 violas, 4 cellos, and two double basses. For the Triple Concerto, the center of the orchestra (including the conductor, Adrija Čepaitė) was of course hidden behind the lid of the concert grand (Steinway model D-274). The solo cellist, Erica Piccotti, performed on a wooden extra podium to the left of the pianist, and farther to the left stood the violinist, Pavel Vernikov.

The piano had been rotated by around 20 degrees, presumably with the idea that the pianist, Anastasia Voltchok, could see the conductor, but at the same time had the possibility to make visual contact with the string soloists. I could not see how close the contact between pianist and conductor was. However, as far as I can tell (between scribbling notes and glimpsing at the score), Anastasia Voltchok mostly kept her eyes in the sheet music (I almost had the impression that she was sight-reading). She rarely ever looked back at the other soloists.

Direction, Inner Workings of the Orchestra

As mentioned, in the Triple Concerto, I could not really watch the conductor. All I got from my seat were the occasional glimpses at “shaping motions” of Adrija Čepaitė’s left hand (more on her conducting in the section on the Mendelssohn symphony below). On the other hand, it soon was clear that the conductor received significant support from the first string desks. I’m primarily referring to the Kazakh concertmaster, Sherniyaz Mussakhan (*1993, artistic director of the orchestra), and the Latvian Jana Ozolina (orchestra manager) at the first desk of the second violins. One could easily tell that these two musicians played a key role in the coordination of the orchestra, acting as “mediators” between the conductor and the string sections.

As one would assume for an ensemble of young soloists, the members of the orchestra are not only young, but also active and motivated. Sure, one cannot expect the homogeneity in sound of a major symphony orchestra, maybe also not the ultimate smoothness and precision. However, the music lives through the joint forces of these young musicians in the early stages of their career.

Pavel Vernikov, Erica Piccotti, Anastasia Voltchok, Adrija Čepaitė, YES Orchestra — Basel, 2019-05-23 (© Konzertgesellschaft Basel)
Pavel Vernikov, Erica Piccotti, Anastasia Voltchok, Adrija Čepaitė, YES Orchestra — Basel, 2019-05-23 (© Konzertgesellschaft Basel)

The Performance

I should start my performance comments with a note on the acoustics. The “Musical Theater” is not primarily a concert hall, but more of a theater for musical and theater plays. For this concert, the front part of the stage was separated off through walls that help focusing the sound into the audience. However, the latter is heavily structured with a balconies and galleries, offering clarity for the spoken word on stage. There is no reverberation to speak of, the acoustics remain very dry. I don’t know how that feels for the orchestra on the stage, but I can at least imagine (and sometimes had the impression, with the soloists) that the musicians were fighting the acoustic adversities, maybe had difficulties hearing each other?

I. Allegro

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto op.56 begins with an orchestral introduction. Adrija Čepaitė and the orchestra started with a flowing, natural tempo. I noted the “living” sound, active playing, careful dynamics, clear articulation, poignant staccato: a good start! That pleasant impression continues, as the solo cello raises its voice, starts singing with its full, intense tone, the warm and harmonious timbre. The solo violin joined in. It had no problem carrying over the cello tone, of course, though I soon started noting some superficialities in articulation (the triplets in the violin weren’t always staccato ).

Also, I realized that the venue didn’t really allow for true dolce playing, especially once the orchestral accompaniment became more prominent. There were moments when Erica Piccotti seemed to reach the limit of the instrument when pushing the tone / volume. In general, though, I really liked the solo cello, its well-projecting tone, singing even in pp. Pavel Vernikov’s Guadagnini violin either was acoustically at a disadvantage, or the violinist deliberately took his role back behind that of the cellist. Still, I wondered about the occasional coarseness in articulation, almost carelessness in his playing. There were also inaccuracies in the intonation in the violin solo, and on rare occasions, these even crept into the cello part. This made me suspect acoustic adversities.

Piano

Strangely, despite the dry acoustics, the piano sounded rather mellow, blurred, not always clear in the articulation, possibly due to excess use of the sustain pedal. It also lacked differentiation in the dynamics, which defeated the dolce annotation. Was the pianist “playing against the acoustics”, too? There was also the occasional coarseness and inaccuracy in the touch, in a solo part that should not be overly challenging. This reinforced the unfavorable visual impression of the artist sight-reading her part. Plus, the piano had a certain tendency to push the tempo / pull very slightly ahead (even though she had Adrija Čepaitė in her field of view at all times), and the playing lacked subtlety in general.

II. Largo —

That cello solo which opens this short movement! A beautiful cantilena, careful and subtle, expressively singing, but never overblown. And later, where violin and cello solos move in octaves, these parallels were clean, serene, even subtle. It was also nice to observe how Pavel Vernikov kept Erica Piccotti in his view, followed her playing closely. As for the pianist, as mentioned, she mainly seemed to cooperate with the (invisible) conductor. Also here, her piano part sounded blurred. However, Beethoven explicitly marked the use of the sustain pedal over major parts of that movement. On a modern concert grand, though, one may want to be somewhat restrictive about this, as here, the blurring effect is much stronger than on historic instruments.

III. Rondo alla polacca

Also here, the violin solo lacked refinement, tonal / sound balance. The name “Guadagnini” led to higher expectations. However, I wouldn’t want to attribute all of this to Pavel Vernikov. The acoustics must have played a (bad) role here. The central Polacca part (starting in the cello solo) was deliberately heavy, almost a bit clumsy, and a tad slower. Here, the soloists (and the accompaniment?) weren’t always in agreement about the tempo, the rubato. In general, the performance lacked coherence, especially in transitions, in agogics, and in the occasional rubato.

In terms of volume, Pavel Vernikov by seemed to have adapted to the acoustic environment. Sadly, this did not preclude the occasional superficiality, even carelessness. One fun / entertaining moment occurred when Pavel Vernikov had just rests: he spontaneously started conducting the orchestra from his corner 🙂

And again, the piano part lacked subtlety, didn’t seem to fit into the trio of soloists.

Accompaniment

The mixed impression from the soloist’s playing and interaction may have distracted the attention from the orchestral accompaniment. However, as far as I can tell / remember, Adrija Čepaitė’s direction, in cooperation with the YES Orchestra, was attentive, lively, supportive, with the appropriate differentiation in dynamics and articulation. In the aftermath, it may have been a pity that limitations in the soloists’ performance (and the acoustics) distracted from the accompaniment. However, conductor and orchestra got their chance in the second half of the concert.

Rating: ★★½

Unconsciously, my attention gradually moved onto the cello part. Erica Piccotti definitely offered the best, most beautiful playing among the soloists. I ended up with the memory of a “cello concert with extra violin and piano in the accompaniment”. Even though acoustically, the piano was the most dominating of the solo instruments.

The overall impression remained that of a somewhat disparate, if not occasionally “rough ride”.


Mendelssohn: Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.11

The Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.11 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) is a work from 1824. The composer was just 15 at that time. The symphony premiered in private in 1824, the public premiere was in 1827, in Leipzig. The work comes in four movements:

  1. Allegro di molto
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto — Trio
  4. Allegro con fuoco

Interestingly, 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted this symphony in London, he replaced the third movement with an orchestrated version of the Scherzo from his Octet in E♭ minor, op.20. The orchestra for that British performance was the Royal Philharmonic Society, the dedicatee of the symphony.

The Performance

At last, one could watch Adrija Čepaitė’s conducting. In her arm movements (the baton in her right hand), she was energetic, very precise. In her left arm & hand, she switched between symmetric movements and shaping phrases and dynamics. She obviously was well familiar with the score, had a clear concept for the performance, the interpretation. And in cooperation with the first desks (see above), Adrija Čepaitė was perfectly able to convey her intents to the musicians in the orchestra.

What I noted immediately, though, were the clear signs of Adrija Čepaitė’s provenance from singing and choir conducting. Her gestures, her “body and conducting language” were exactly those of a choir conductor. In that latter role, one must not only indicate dynamics, rhythm and phrasing, but also “inject” proper intonation, breathing and voice support. That part of course is superfluous with an instrumental ensemble. That alone would not hurt, but it made Adrija Čepaitė’s conducting look overly schematic, if not a bit dogmatic, not really relaxed, “free”. I think she should try freeing herself from the “mechanics” of choir / vocal conducting (or reserve the latter to where it is necessary). That said: what counts in the end is of course the result, the outcome!

I. Allegro di molto

A very vivid performance, full of momentum, and reflecting the nature of this movement. This is clearly one of Mendelssohn’s youth works, with plenty of energy (almost too much, one felt at times!). The movement matched Adrija Čepaitė’s energetic direction, the orchestra performed with excellent coordination, articulating precisely, and careful in dynamics and phrasing. I also noted the excellent wind soloists (both woodwind and brass). Thanks for repeating the exposition!
★★★½

II. Andante

An island of peace and calm, after the turmoil of the first movement! Expressive, blooming melodies, harmonious ensemble playing, smooth, clean woodwinds, equally clean, characterful horns! Very expressive playing especially in the strings. Maybe (my only quibble) sometimes, the vibrato was at the limit (in a small orchestra, individual vibrating does not average out across the ensemble). The best movement in this performance.
★★★★

III. Menuetto: Allegro molto — Trio

Good tempo, swaying rhythm, supported by careful dynamics. I was pleased to note that both repeats were observed. In the Trio (again with all repeats), the intonation in the wind instruments wasn’t always quite perfect (still very acceptable, though). I really enjoyed how Adrija Čepaitė shaped the accelerando at the end of the Trio, resuming energy towards the excellent transition back to the Scherzo!
★★★½

IV. Allegro con fuoco

Adrija Čepaitė took the last movement fast, again full of youthful energy. It was a challenging tempo, at which the fast semiquaver figures initially were about to blur in the strings. However, after a few bars, the coordination in the orchestra improved, showing that the ensemble is perfectly able to manage the pace. The orchestral discipline remained excellent through to the end. In her conducting, Adrija Čepaitė kept the orchestra in a tight grip. She obviously had a clear vision of the music.

The pizzicato (all pp) was subtle, delicate, and full of tension. Throughout the movement, the musicians in the orchestra were performing very attentively, “at the chair’s edge”. Especially of course those at the first desks! Clarity and transparency were instrumental in the fugato. Overall, a thrilling, enthralling performance with “grip” and drive, particularly in the dramatic parts, and up to Mendelssohn’s boisterous ending.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½



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