October 5, 2011

Scintillating Strings

Print More

On Tuesday night, Bailey Hall welcomed the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, a subset of one of the finest chamber groups in the world. Founded by Sir Neville Mariner, the ensemble has most recently had press for appointing violin virtuoso Joshua Bell as their new music director. Regretfully for most female attendees, Bell did not make an appearance Tuesday night (perhaps he was just too busy soloing with orchestras around the world).

All jesting aside, what makes this London-based group so remarkable is its extremely proficient sound. Every musician is well seasoned; these guys are the cream of the crop in the chamber music world. When the sound of a solo line rivals that of a human voice, you know you’re listening to brilliant string players. Another distinguishing quality of the group is that players routinely work together on larger chamber works, as opposed to on usual string quartet with additional foreign guests. Because of this, the audience is given the chance to hear larger works that are not standard repertoire for chamber music concerts. Additionally, these works are played at a higher quality as a result of the group’s history together. Tuesday night, the Academy selected a trio of classical crowd pleasers in the form of two string octets and a sextet.

After making a quick alteration to the performance order of the program, the players instead opened with an early work of Dmitri Shostakovich: his Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11 for string octet. Written shortly after Shostakovich’s graduation from the Petrograd Conservatory as its youngest student, the octet shows hints of the oppression and strife in Russia following the Revolution in 1920. The players opened the piece with the Adagio, instilling a brooding mood into the music. This first movement was in fact written in memory of Shostakovich’s friend and poet, Volodya Kurchavov. Shostakovich’s style aided in demonstrating how pristine and well matched the group’s spiccato and pizzicato techniques were. In the middle of the Adagio, a short scherzo arose with fiery passages in the first violin part. Andrew Watkinson blazed through these virtuosic passages, making his talent quite evident in his spewed glissandi and high-pitched runs. Following the Adagio is the exuberant Scherzo that, for an early work, already hints at some of Shostakovich’s trademarks. The octet managed to go a little bit crazy with the movement, while still maintaining a clean, cultivated sound.

With great change of pace, the Academy then played the Brahms Sextet No. 2.  It is no secret that Johannes Brahms was quite the romantic, most infamously known for his forbidden love for Clara Schumann. In expressing these emotions, Brahms decidedly chose music as his medium. Just as he wrote a clarinet quintet for Clara, he wrote this sextet to cope with his failed engagement to soprano Agathe von Siebold in 1858. The sextet, subtitled Agathe, uses both rhythm and musical notation, the notes A-G-A-H (B natural in German notation)-E, to evoke the name of his lost love. The first movement contains the Agathe motto as well as a rhythmic motif that imitates the syllabic stress of her name. The players showcased their ability to balance with one another in the complex and interweaving lines of the first movement, and continued through the poignant second movement all while preserving these cryptic motifs. Out of the second movement arose a capering ländler, so fervently played that Watkinson broke a few bow-hairs. After an E minor adagio, the final movement returned to a cheerful mood. The group took a lighter approach to the rich, well-known melodies of this movement, although it was refreshing to hear a rendition that did not overdo these sumptuous lines.

After intermission, violist Robert Smissen remarked that it was nice to see, “so many young faces” in the audience. With that being said, the group delivered these young listeners an exciting final work, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat.  This is without a doubt the most well-known octet, a cornerstone of chamber music repertoire. Mendelssohn specifically stated in the score that the octet, “must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style”. Mind you, he was sixteen when he wrote this; and yet, this precocious composer had some dozen symphonies under his belt. Thus, the piece lends itself less to a chamber music sound; that is, each player’s part is not as individually important. There are many secondary voices that add layers to the music. However, it is somewhat imprecise to say that the style is more symphonic. He wrote eight independent voices, and even the big symphonies do not have this many lines going at the same time. In other words, the sound is like no other. The octet did a skillful job of maintaining this in-between sound, communicating dynamics and phrasing with one another masterfully while playing. The structure of the first movement, the longest movement, is most comparable to that of a violin concerto. Watkinson was readily able to take this role, delivering fluid, floating lines in stark contrast to what we heard in the Shostakovich. The group further demonstrated its camaraderie in the frivolous Scherzo, in which melodies are being thrown around with great agility. It takes an extremely cohesive group to nail these handoffs, but this octet certainly managed. The finale was played at a tempo fast enough to bring the audience to an immediate standing ovation.

After being brought out an exhaustive three times for applause, the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble finally gave us an encore to the tune of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”.  In the words of first violinist Watkinson, they wanted to play us some, “American music.” This familiar tune evoked laughter from the audience once recognized, and brought us to our feet once more at its close.

Original Author: Martha Wydysh