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No Heads are Better than One

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
03/06/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto # 3; Concerto in C for Three Violins
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras # 9
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklaerte Nacht
Dmitri Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Octet

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Kenneth Sillito (leader)

Sometimes life in New York can be an embarrassment of riches and last evening I was forced to choose between what I am certain was a fine Mahler 5 with the Chicago Symphony or the concert at the 92nd Street Y presented by the chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Having heard the CSO do Bruckner on Saturday night, I opted to journey uptown to hear this marvelous string ensemble. Once the music started, it only took about five seconds to realize that I had made the right choice. This dedicated group projects a marvelously clean sound with each and every voice crystal clear. The conductorless orchestra was the brainchild of Neville Marriner, a refugee string player from the British system, and a true sense of democracy pervades its playing. Rarely have I heard such a satisfying blend of individuals or experienced the coming together of instrumental lines into such an intelligently transparent whole. The entire concert was a profound seminar in voice leading.

The two Bach pieces were exquisite. Mr. Sillito is a magnificent violinist, dextrous and lyrical at once, and leads the group with the most understated bobs of the head. He was joined by Harvey de Souza and Simon Smith for the 3 Violin Concerto, a piece remarkably similar to the Brandenburg, and their combined, blended tone was the perfect contrast to their comrades’ tutti. It helped sonically that all of the string players, except of course the celli, stood throughout and seemed to recreate, as best as we can imagine, what a chamber ensemble of Bach’s day might have been like. If there was one word to describe these readings, that word would be crisp.

The Villa-Lobos was presented as a "mystery piece" with the audience asked to identify it in order to win a prize. Only one person even came close (it didn’t seem quite cricket for this critic to participate) but she at least knew the composer (the woman in back of me thought that it was Sir Elton John). In any case the playing was so richly blended as to throw a whole new light on these idiosyncratic works. As a whole the Bachianas have many beautiful moments and this particular group defines those moments for all to hear.

During intermission I became increasingly more excited to hear these fine musicians play Transfigured Night. I was not in the least disappointed to hear a small string orchestra version of this last great work of the 19th century. Originally written as a string sextet, the work turned into a string orchestra piece when Gustav Mahler advised Schoenberg to flesh it out for popular consumption. I have always preferred the original sextet, however, because the individual lines are so incredibly descriptive. In the Academy’s hands, these lines were left sacrosanct, with the first chair players playing as if still in a sextet and the small forces not overpowering the delicate lyricism. This was an extremely passionate performance as befits the supercharged Dehmel text and rivaled any that I have ever heard.

Lastly, the Academy gave a spirited performance of the youthful Shostakovich works, known for their finger-breaking passages and high energy. Encores of Mozart and Britten were simply gorgeous.

For me, this was the delight and surprise of the season thus far.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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