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The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

Los Angeles
Beckman Auditorium, Caltech, Pasadena
10/22/2006 -  
Dvorak: Sextet for Strings in A major, Op. 48
Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo, Op 11
Enesco: Octet for Strings in C Major, Op. 7

Kenneth Sillito (Leader), Harvey de Souza, Martin Burgess, Jan Schomolck (violin), Robert Smissen, Duncan Fergusson (viola), Stephen Orton, John Heley (cello)

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

For a Sunday afternoon concert with the Chamber Ensemble of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Beckman Auditorium at Caltech in Pasadena was almost packed. “Sundays with Coleman,” now in its 103rd season, is the oldest independent chamber music series in the United States, and the rest of this season includes the Takacs and Mendelssohn Quartets and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Designed by Edward Durrell Stone in 1964, Beckman Auditorium is an unusual modernist multi-purpose circular hall with a conical roof and a tent-like interior, as if Philip Johnson had designed the Cabaret Sauvage at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. The hall has a strange combination of the rational and the decorative, a mid-century modern civic design but with ecclesiastical detailing not belonging to any particular religion. There are 1146 seats in the orchestra and one balcony, facing a curved stage. The hanging gold mesh “coat of mail” ceiling and the perforated acoustic tile that lines the walls exude a quaint but dated charm. From a seat in the left side of the balcony, the acoustic was warm and unobtrusive, if a little distant.

Dvorak’s Bohemian inflected string sextet began with a lilting, warm and gentle dance. Then it sang more deeply and slowly, full of a summer’s eve. For chamber music, the opening movement felt orchestral, with the individual lines blurring into the ensemble. In many string quartets one of the joys is to always be able to distinguish the individual lines; in the sextet and octets of this concert, the beauty was often in an opposite quality, the harmonious blending of all the strings. Toward the end of the first movement, one of the violins raised its voice for a moment above the throng. Then all of them were together again, with pizzicati in the violas, rich as tears lost in a warm rain.

They paused before the second movement, the Dumka, and the rapt audience remained utterly silent. The Dumka was full of emotion, like a loved one coming home after a long time away. A pizzicato in the first cello contrasted to the ensemble, and then the first violin took several solos against the background of the other strings. The andante of the Dumka seemed to tell a tale of a dark Eastern European forest, with a slow folk dance unfolding in twilight. In this lingering gypsy waltz the sound was a little distant and soft compared to the crisp clarity of more modern halls. But the limpid, seamless performance was full of personality, ravishing, with firelight shining through the shadowy woods and the earthy smell of mushrooms.

The third movement, a Furiant (Presto) was a swift dance, with a spiccato melody bouncing along in the violins. Then the violas took the melody against pizzicati in the second cello. There was a hint of a more classical style, like Mozart or Haydn with a Czech accent, quick and abrupt.

The Finale, a theme and variations, had a subtle grace, stepping lightly and then slowly. First, all viola and cello, in a darker melody and theme, then the violins joined in for the first variation, with a gentle cello pizzicato. The Allegro variation became a fast stream of melody. Then the violins led the chase in the final Presto with a more percussive pizzicato in the cello. What a delight! In black suits and white shirts without ties, the players seemed the perfect well-mannered Englishmen, demure but seasoned, full of strength and brilliance.

The exquisite early Shostakovich Prelude and Scherzo, written for double string quartet, are often recorded but rarely played in concert. The first piece opened forcefully, with all the strings in a dark minor harmony set against the cry of the first violin. While unmistakably the unique voice of Shostakovich, the tone of these pieces looks back toward the 19th century, recalling the dissonance of Mahler in their deep strident darkness. But the faster piece, led by the violas, leaps and gallops into absurdity with a discord that is all Shostakovich. That distinctive neurosis and insanity is a mirror to the 20th century, a zeitgeist awkward beyond grace. At the close the general mayhem gives way to a passage of softer, more civilized Russian chamber music, all in all very worthwhile, a rare treasure.

The Enesco octet opened in a full deep harmony, with all of the instruments joining in the rich orchestral melody, save one cello that accompanied in a kind of continuo. This intensely romantic, emotional music is rooted profoundly in the late 19th century French tradition of Franck, Chausson, and Fauré. But that romantic intensity also owes much to Wagner and Brahms, and is also closely allied to the impressionistic styles of Debussy and Ravel.

Performed in one continuous movement, the octet frequently set one or a few instruments against all of the others in a sustained harmonic progression. At times, the cellos carried the melody in pizzicato and then handed it off to the violas. Often, the first violin took up a Rumanian Gypsy solo against all of the other strings in full sostenuto harmony. There could have been more fire in the passage marked “Très fougueux,” but the endless flow of melody was delicately evanescent, extremely refined and exotic in its way. The slow movement was exceedingly subtle, with impressionistic inner passages in the 2nd violin, adding eddying swirls of emotion. Finally, the piece grew into an elegy, with the first violin bursting through the surface of harmony in mournful song. The melody surged in waves and whitecaps, relaxing and then leaping up again into an elegiac waltz.

Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The World as Meditation,” quoted Enesco in an epigram: “J'ai passé trop de temps à travailler mon violon, à voyager. Mais l'exercice essentiel du compositeur… la méditation -- rien ne l'a jamais suspendu en moi . . . Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ne s'arrête ni nuit ni jour.”… “I have spent too much time playing my violin, traveling. But the essential exercise of the composer-- meditation-- nothing has ever kept me from it... I live in an unending dream, that does not stop for night or day…” This Enesco octet seemed the music of dreams, never letting up, like the waves of the sea, but full of nourishment, sustenance and extreme satisfaction.

Introducing the encore, on a sun-drenched California afternoon, the lead violinist Kenneth Sillito explained: “We are going back to an English winter today, so we will play an elegiac melody from Grieg, entitled ‘Last Spring.’” An idiomatic, vernacular gem, the elegiac narrative spoke of longing and a green vista, not tragic but heart-rending nonetheless, as if to say to the ensemble, “Don’t go!”

Thomas Aujero Small



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