October 14, 2015
Many years ago, I took a Caribbean cruise aboard Queen Elizabeth II, then the flagship of the storied Cunard Line. One evening a dinner companion, perusing the menu, commented invidiously about the virtues of English cooking relative to the French variety. Our unflappable (of course) English waiter observed dryly (of course) that the rival French Line had recently scrapped its whole passenger fleet, while Cunard of England was still going strong. There’s something to be said for the staying power of sheer competence, executing consistently without flaw, even if the results might not fully arouse one’s passions.
That’s been the story of London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since its formation in 1958 by violinist and conductor Neville Marriner. (The American violinist and conductor Joshua Bell has been music director since 2011, while Marriner remains associated with the orchestra as “life president.”) The Academy’s elite chamber ensemble, in the midst of a 15-city North American tour, opened the San Antonio Chamber Music Society season with supremely poised, finely polished — and slightly distancing — accounts of music by Gioachino Rossini, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert. The venue for the Oct. 11 concert was Temple-Beth-El, which was nicely filled for the occasion.
The major work on the program was Schubert’s epic Octet in F, whose unusual instrumentation accounts for its rarity on concert programs, and also determined the personnel for the chamber ensemble’s tour. Five of the players were principals with the Academy orchestra — Harvey De Souza (violin), Robert Smissen (viola), Stephen Orton (cello), Lynda Houghton (double-bass) and Stephen Stirling (horn). Not shown on the orchestra’s roster were Tomo Keller (violin and guest leader), Lawrence O’Donnell (bassoon) and Timothy Orpen (clarinet). All are worth mentioning by name because all played superbly as individuals, and all contributed equally to the buttery, perfectly balanced ensemble sound.
The Schubert Octet is a huge piece, comprising six movements and typically lasting about an hour — this performance came in a few minutes short of that. As one expects from Schubert, the music is a fountain of melody. On the whole the mood is light, but — again, as one expects from Schubert — melancholic shadows intrude.
The ensemble’s tempi in the Octet tended to be fairly quick, tightening the long lines and lightening the weight of the music, sometimes at the expense of those shadows. The beauty of tone and technical finesse all around sometimes called to mind those impossibly clean, clutter-free living rooms and kitchens you see in Dwell Magazine, but Keller, Orpen and Stirling injected doses of zest and a sense of habitation.
Stirling’s burnished tone and generous technique gave Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E-flat, K. 407, more than its usual measure of pleasure.
The surprise of the concert was Rossini’s Sonata No. 1 in G for two violins, cello and double-bass. He was only 12 years old when he composed it, but the music proved to be fully mature in craft, ample in substance and forward-looking in harmony. Keller’s sweet tone and vivacious phrasing were especially pleasing amidst an impeccable (of course) ensemble performance.
Preceding the concert, young members of the YOSA Concertino Strings and the YOSA Alumni String Quartet performed music by Janacek, Purcell and Mozart to honor the memory of Ruth Jean Gurwitz, who died this past June. For many years she was one of the city's leading patrons of classical music — and, by reputation, an excellent jazz pianist.
Hear all three works from this concert in recordings by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, streaming free on Spotify. Find the link on the right-hand side of the Academy’s tour page.
There will always be an England
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
Tomo KellerPhoto: Thomas Carlgren for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra