The musicians of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the nomadic London-based chamber orchestra, are no strangers to Southern California. They show up annually on the season schedules of Los Angeles and/or Orange County arts organizations. Two of their most prominent figures — Neville Marriner, founder and Life President, and Iona Brown, former leader and director — were also prior Music Directors of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
The group visits so often that during Andre Previn’s tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he once openly griped when told that The Academy was bumping him and the LA Phil out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for one weekend. It turns out that “The Academy” in question on that particular weekend was the group who hands out the Oscars, but Mr. Previn actually thought it was the chamber orchestra when first told. (You’ve gotta chuckle at the notion that Sir Andre was getting upset that Sir Marriner was gonna take over his stage and horn in on his territory.)
So despite the full orchestra having just performed two months ago in Santa Monica with pianist Jeremy Denk, it shouldn’t have been too big a surprise that they were already back in town this past weekend, albeit at a different venue and in a slightly different guise. The good folks at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State University, Long Beach, presented the ASMF’s Chamber Ensemble, a group of the orchestra’s principals created in 1967 to play works requiring numbers between a string quartet and a full orchestra. On this occasion, they played sextets by Strauss and Schoenberg and the Mendelssohn Octet. After last Saturday’s top-notch performance, it was clear that we were very lucky to have them back.
The two main pieces on the program, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, are major pillars in the temple of much-revered chamber works. While they are performed fairly often by local ensembles, the visitors brought their own style to these familiar masterpieces.
The ASMF’s rendition of the Mendelssohn Octet which closed the concert was spectacular. The first movement was lively, the musicians playing it with the right amount of verve without making it too bold. The appropriately melancholy second movement gave way to a sprightly scherzo, eventually leading to a rollicking finale which, when finished, brought the audience immediately to its feet for a loud and sustained round of applause.
The standing ovation was well deserved. The ensemble playing was terrific throughout, with players seamlessly tossing fugal phrases between each other; tutti passages were impressive in their blend and unity. The ASMF’s sound had immediacy, even with Carpenter’s clear but somewhat dry acoustics limiting the bloom of the cellos. Guest Leader Tomo Keller (on loan from his usual jobs as Assistant Leader of the London Symphony and Leader of the Swedish Radio Symphony) was particularly phenomenal, consistently displaying gorgeous tone matched with impeccable accuracy.
Verklärte Nacht, with its meandering 25-30 minute-long single movement and its broad range of emotions enabling a wide variety of approaches, is a very different work from the Octet. Eighteen months ago, the musicians of the LA Phil played an intense version that emphasized the work’s hard edges, bracing harmonies, and shifts in emotion, thereby foreshadowing the transformational style of music-making Schoenberg developed in later compositions.
In contrast, the six musicians from the ASMF played Verklärte Nacht with a romantic, even nostalgic, feel throughout which reveled more in the piece’s quieter portions. Moments that called for tension and angst were energetic and certainly given their due, but felt more tangential to other sweeter sections. Yet even if one preferred a more overtly dramatic approach, the artistry and skill displayed by the musicians in this piece was undeniable.
The concert opened with Strauss’s pleasant String Sextet from Capriccio, and the ASMF gave it a charming reading.
Random other thoughts:
- Immediately before Verklärte Nacht was played, Rich Caparella, KUSC-FM radio personality, appeared on stage and read an English translation of Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name which inspired Schoenberg’s composition.
- The audience at the Carpenter Center was somewhere between half to two-thirds full. That some in the audience chose to clap between movements in the Mendelssohn was a little disappointing, if not entirely surprising. What was much worse was the insistence of one member of the audience to not only clap between movements, but also to do so immediately after the last note each performance, regardless of how quiet it was or how much the musicians tried to let the moment linger by holding their bows silently above their instruments. It absolutely ruined the end of the Schoenberg and the inner movements of the Mendelssohn. I understand being that enthusiastic when there’s a de rigeur loud ending (like, say, The Rite of Spring, the Beethoven 5th, or the Tchaikovsky 4th, among countless others), but to do it so vehemently for a subdued ending is self-aggrandizing and utterly disrespectful to the music, musicians, and fellow audience members.
Carpenter Performing Arts Center presents: May 9, 2015; The Carpenter Center (Long Beach, CA)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
Tomo Keller, violin and Guest Leader
Fiona Bonds, viola
Martin Burgess, violin
Jennifer Godson, violin
Stephen Orton, cello
Will Schofield, cello
Robert Smissen, viola
Harvey de Souza, violin
Strauss: String Sextet from Capriccio, Op. 85
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in D minor, Op. 4
Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20
Photo credit: courtesy of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center