Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Eckhart Ensemble

Victor Yampolsky conducting
with Karen Johnson, violin
& Gustav Highstein, oboe
Jan. 4, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

The Eckhart Ensemble, a chamber group and orchestra founded last year, gave its second round of concerts over the weekend, bringing in Victor Yampolsky, the violinist-turned-conductor based at Northwestern University in Chicago, to lead a program of Bach and Mozart.

The ensemble’s performance at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church suffered intermittently from the acoustics of a long, narrow, high-ceilinged sanctuary, which visually and audially distanced the two dozen musicians from their audience. Bass sound, especially, was recessed and rather muddled in the densely contrapuntal voicings of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 and Concerto for violin and oboe, BWV 1060.

The sonic focus was sharper in a second half of Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in B flat major, K. 319, and the andantino movement from the “Posthorn” Serenade.

Karen Johnson, the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, now a member of the U.S. Marine Band (“the President’s Own”) and other Washington area ensembles, and Gustav Highstein, principal oboist of the Richmond Symphony, paced a lively and stylish reading of the Bach concerto, although the oboe projected better than the solo violin in this space.

Johnson, who also served as concertmaster of the chamber orchestra, found a better solo showcase in a chaste, soulful adagio movement, originally from the Violin Sonata in E minor, BWV 1023, interpolated into the “Brandenburg” concerto as a slow movement.

Yampolsky, like many Russian-born musicians, seems inclined to emphasize expressive opportunities whenever and wherever they present themselves in 18th-century music.

Mozart offered more such opportunities, especially the “Posthorn” andantino, which the conductor characterized as a “romantic” interlude unexpectedly placed in the middle of an outdoorsy, celebratory serenade. Played with rich lyricism (and lengthened by inclusion of its repeats), the movement came across almost as a bit of proto-romantic tone poetry.

The conductor’s view of the symphony, as “pure champagne” in musical form, translated to a brisk, sharply accented, altogether exuberant reading.