Adrija Čepaitė belongs to a young generation of Lithuanian conductors and artists promoting the rich and multifarious tradition of Lithuanian music beyond the borders of the Baltic states. Having graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz (Austria) with a degree in symphonic and choral conducting, Čepaitė has been conducting various orchestras in Lithuania and launching her career further in Europe. As a conductor of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra she tries to honour the ensemble's history while also finding her own voice.

Adrija Čepaitė
© Dmitrij Matvejev

Bachtrack: The Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra (LKO) will celebrate its 60th birthday in 2020. It has toured and performed in the best venues in the world – London’s Royal Festival Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia to name a few – worked together with Yehudi Menuhin, Daniel Hope, Mischa Maisky and Arabella Steinbacher, amongst others. What does it mean to you to conduct an ensemble with such a long standing history?

Adrija Čepaitė: Indeed, founded by Saulius Sondeckis, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra has been the most travelling and performing orchestra in Lithuania, representing the country in prestigious concert halls. Current Artistic Director and talented violinst Sergey Krylov has done much in shaping the orchestra's style and sound. During history, the orchestra has accumulated a wealth of experience and formed a truly valuable musical identity and I approach it with great respect and sensitivity. My goal is to capture the orchestras’ richness – of sound, of musicality – and make it bloom afresh, and in a daring way.

How would you characterise the sound of the LKO?

The richness of the orchestra’s tradition is certainly well reflected in its characteristic sound. I would describe it as impeccably straight and well maintained. It has got a flexible spine, and it is a concentrated sound with distinctive subtle sense of style and virtuosity. More to that, I do find endurance and a sense of clear identity in it. These colours, no doubt, come from the national character of Lithuanians.

In your latest recording with the LKO, you chose works by three contemporary Lithuanian composers: Bronius Kutavičius, Osvaldas Balakauskas and Algirdas Martinaitis. How would you describe their musical language?

These compositions, although rather different in their musical language, have a unifying line: an expression of deep Lithuanian spirituality (Lithuanian language is one of several oldest in the world) conveyed via modern classical language. Kutavičius is a herald of Lithuanian musical modernism, specifically steeped in Lithuanian folk tradition. Revealing layers of European culture going back to the history of Lithuanian ancestors, Kutavičius communicates this spiritual treasure in a modern manner and relevant contexts. Balakauskas generates an intriguing synthesis of logic and beauty, intuition and picturesqueness. Martinaitis is all about tireless search for the roots of human spirit and for the sacred. It could take a form of significant sacred music compositions, or ironic "animality" style (inspired by Orwell) opuses or a dialogue with European classics.

Contemporary Baltic composers, for example Pēteris Vasks or Arvo Pärt, play a major role in the European classical music landscape. What are the strengths of Baltic classical music?

People in the Baltic countries have a strong sense of faith, hope and suffering. Evidently, there is a breeze of authenticity, a search for the divine in the music of prominent Baltic composers. We still fight for values of European culture, which are our values, as we did against the monstrous Soviet empire in a not too distant past. I dare to say that the rebellious spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven is very much alive amongst us. I wish it gained creative force even more.

Adrija Čepaitė
© Dmitrij Matvejev

How do you find the balance between honouring the composers wishes and finding your own interpretation?

It is of crucial importance for a conductor to clearly understand their relationship with a composition they intend to perform. They should ask themselves, if I may say so, how much of their own personality they intend to put into it. I strongly believe the right way is this: the deeper a conductor goes into the core of a composition, the less they want to impose their own self on the music. The infinity of music surpasses any finite ego.

More than that, a third factor comes into play. It is the orchestra itself. Its musical tradition, ethics, even a habit in performing a concrete composer significantly influence the final performance. So, failing to honour both the composer’s wishes and the orchestra’s tradition is a big minus for a so-called conductor’s interpretation. There should be “a sacred triangle” of dialogue between the conductor, composer and orchestra.

What is your approach as a conductor?

I often ask this question to myself. These questions become especially poignant when you see how rampant consumerism dictates all sorts of fashions in the field of classical music. Nowadays it has become fashionable to be a conductor. And, desirably, a conductor with the drive to be shocking, enchanting and otherwise energising the air. Let me ask: what value has this theatre of big egos? Is "waving hands" all about conducting? Does it mean that the orchestra and the audience have become like sheep without a shepherd? I do not believe in any spectacular radiance of ego in revealing the inherent beauty of music. I think even talent and knowledge is not of crucial importance. Foremost, I believe in the listening heart and conscious ministry. And this is true in other areas of human activities as well.

You are also a founding member of the vocal ensemble Graces & Voices. What part does Gregorian Chant play in your career as a conductor?

I got interested in Gregorian Chant when I was still a teenager. (Lithuania is a Catholic country, and it saw a strong revival of Church music after the regaining of independence in 1990.) A strong desire to know more of this highest form of prayer inspired me to undertake Gregorian Chant studies when I was studying in Austria. In the course of these studies, we formed a women's ensemble Graces & Voices, which is successfully developing its concert tours and CD projects.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of knowing Gregorian Chant for conducting. There is a well-grounded theory that neums (ancient signs of the chant notification) is a depiction of conductor’s manual technique. Principal cantors of big monastic scholars were conveying symbolic meaning with modest movements of their hands and, eventually, in a course of centuries and in various monasteries, these techniques got written down as iconic signs. Indeed, knowledge of Gregorian Chant gives an advantage to familiarise with the very source of Western classical music and, hence, provides a great treasure for its understanding and interpretation. In short, the spirituality of Gregorian Chant fosters an ability to apprehend the transcendent value of music.

Lithuanian is one of the oldest living languages. How does the country’s long choral tradition influence its symphonic music?

Song is a foremost spiritual home of Lithuanians. No doubt, it still exercises a powerful influence on our classical music. Kutavičius' Dzūkian Variations serves as a very good example: the composition stems out of the archaic Lithuanian folk song and returns to the arrangement for four-voice choir. Somehow, it is symbolic and typical. Choral tradition, relying on the treasury of folk music, has always been a kind of permeating imperative in Lithuanian classical music. I believe that there is still a great potential for inspiration for composers. Especially nowadays, when our consumption-driven societies are increasingly searching for authenticity.

How has your experience singing and exploring chant influenced your orchestral conducting?

To have a voice and to master it is a great gift from God. Voice is a particularly sensitive instrument, reaching out for the very depth of human soul. It is as unique and inimitable as the individual human being himself. Singing teaches me how to apprehend the soul and voice of each instrument, to appreciate the beauty of a musician’s performance. I hugely admire moments when the orchestral sound flows in perfect unity like a chant.

Ten years from now, where would you like to see Lithuanian music and Lithuanian artists?

I wouldn’t speak for my country only. We are part of Europe (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the last Pagan Empire in Europe) and we feel responsible for flourishing the European culture at large. In this vein, I wish Lithuanian classical music becomes a great source of artistic inspiration for a revival of European spirit and valour.

The interview is sponsored by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra Club