Latvian Pianist Gives Impressive Mozart Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Will McNicol,: Arta Arnicane (piano), Ten Tors Orchestra / Simon Ible (conductor), Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, Plymouth 12.7. 2013 (PRB)

Mozart: Divertimento in F major, K 138
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 18 in B flat major, K 456
Will McNicol: As the Leaves Fall
By the Water
Mozart: Symphony No 40 in G minor, K 550

Arta Arnicane (credit Philip R Buttall)
Arta Arnicane (credit Philip R Buttall)

For many years Plymouth benefitted from regular visiting seasons from the first-rate Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) on tour, an association, in fact, going back some fifty years, and certainly befitting of the city’s population of almost 260,000 inhabitants, making it by far the largest city in South West England. But when the city council, in its wisdom, withdrew a small annual subsidy back in 1995, the BSO’s visits have tended to be just once a year ever since, and that now usually with just a ‘Movie-Theme’ offering, leaving Devon’s far-smaller county town of Exeter the nearest location where they still regularly perform – some forty-five miles away, however.

Recently, and at a time when the City Fathers were mounting a bid for the 2017 UK City of Culture award, it might have been just the right time for a rethink However, there was no move by the city council to bring the BSO back to Plymouth, and when the city heard in June that its current bid had been unsuccessful – the final 2017 shortlist being Dundee, Hull, Leicester and Swansea Bay – this omission must surely have played an albeit small part in Plymouth’s perceived cultural shortfall, especially in the realms of classical music provision.

However, one good thing to emerge from the city’s location, was that a number of leading players from London orchestras came to the area to teach and perform at the then Dartington College of Arts, some twenty or so miles away. Among these was violinist, Malcolm Latchem, with many years’ experience with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and various other leading national orchestras. With the demise of Dartington as an academic institution, Latchem was among a number of players who decided to semi-retire in the South West, and who formed the backbone of the Ten Tors Orchestra (TTO), originally established in 1998, himself assuming the leader’s role. It has since become the resident professional ensemble of Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University, under the direction of conductor, Simon Ible, drawing on the finest available players, many of whom will travel over a hundred miles to take part.

The second concert in its recent new initiative – the Classical Masters Series – saw an amalgamation of what Plymouth University essentially stands for, in terms of its musical prowess. In the purely classical sense this is represented by the artists and ensembles which Peninsula Arts promote, while there is also a burgeoning interest in Computer Music Research and contemporary composers, some of whom are local.

On such a glorious summer’s evening, Simon Ible could scarcely have chosen a more suitable and easily digested programme than tonight’s, and all superbly played by the TTO, on this occasion in light classical rig.

TTO (credit Philip R Buttall)
TTO (credit Philip R Buttall)

Mozart’s charming string Divertimento in F, K138 afforded an ideal opener, where the playing was always taut and disciplined, finely contrasting the jauntiness of the outer movements with the lyricism of the central Andante. The venue itself has all the trappings of a custom-built drama studio, which does little, if anything to enhance the sound overall or give it any extra ambience. Indeed it almost creates the illusion that concentrating one’s gaze on a particular player in any one section, simultaneously allows the ears to hone in on that player’s individual contribution, rather than sounding as an homogenous section – a fault of the acoustic though, and not of the performers’ or conductor’s doing.

The orchestra, now augmented with winds, was joined by young Latvian-born pianist, Arta Arnicane, who gave a simply first-rate reading of the composer’s earlier B-flat Concerto, K 456.

Arnicane graduated from the Latvian Academy of Music and recently completed her studies in Zurich, Switzerland. While she has an extensive repertoire, she is also a keen chamber musician, and has a particular interest in music for the fortepiano. Indeed these last two facets played a significant role in the success of Arnicane’s performance. The venue is equipped with a piano of less than full concert dimensions, and from a manufacturer whose instruments can rarely compete, sound-for-sound, with those of their German counterparts, making tone production, and dynamic balance between soloist and orchestra so very crucial.

Furthermore, in a work relying more on expressive delivery than obvious display, Arnicane lavished such infinite care on every solitary sound she produced, while also proving technically flawless in rapid passage-work, and especially in the cadenzas. And, most importantly she, and therefore her audience and fellow-players, clearly enjoyed every single minute of it.

During the opening few bars of the orchestral exposition, Arnicane was gesturing slightly, rather than sitting impassively waiting for her ‘off’. But this never became visually disturbing, and certainly not to suggest that the opening tempo hadn’t been correctly set. This was simply Arnicane ‘playing’ every orchestral note and feeling every slight dynamic nuance – in fact so perfectly at one with the performance, to allow for such a seamless transition when her initial solo entry eventually arrived. This sense of total involvement then permeated every bar, through the expressive central Theme and Variations to the final high-spirited finale.

Will McNicol is a Plymouth University graduate who has distinguished himself both as an accomplished practitioner on the guitar in a number of different genres, as well as a composer in his own right. As the Leaves Fall is a pleasant chord-based piece, which certainly attested to McNicol’s expertise as a performer even if the music, lyrical enough, lacked some overall development, becoming a tad repetitive by the end. By the Water, while equally descriptive in a kind of Ludovico Einaudi fashion, fared somewhat better in terms of thematic development, with the simple, and largely-effective string accompaniment produced by a fellow-student adding some further enhancement.

This kind of juxtaposition can work well, offering a lighter, less classically-orientated intermission for those who require it, though following it with Mozart’s masterfully-crafted Symphony No 40 in G minor, K 550, did rather emphasize the point as far as the real skills needed for compositions of any extended nature.

Always a master of getting the best from his available or minimal resources, conductor, Ible, chose to give the work in its original orchestration, dispensing with trumpets, clarinets and timpani, adding just flute, oboes, bassoons and horns in pairs to the string ensemble.

With the quality of players here at his disposal this worked extremely well, offering a clarity of texture of almost extended chamber-music proportions, but still capable of a full symphonic sound when required. The woodwind playing was impressive throughout, and the horns coped admirably with the often high tessitura of the composer’s writing both here, and in the evening’s earlier works.

Ible’s inspired direction and his players’ unvarying support ensured a performance of the highest merit, capturing every nuance of Mozart’s writing. Moreover it provided the ideal finale as such, and confirmed that, only where a large-scale orchestra of similar expertise is required, does Plymouth still fall behind many other and often smaller conurbations in having such provision as a regular matter of course.

Philip R Buttall