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Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
Photo credit: David Richards
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble graced a sold-out Koerner Hall last evening. It was its second stop on a whirlwind eleven concert tour of North America in a sixteen-day span that began in New York City and will include stops in California, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Washington DC. On paper, it looks more like the frenzy of a presidential election itinerary than one designed for this group of virtuoso chamber musicians. Nevertheless, Toronto was fortunate to be its sole Canadian stop and to host the group for its second performance while it was still fresh.
Neville Marriner, the Academy’s founder and leader right up until his death on October 2nd of this year, inspired each member of his world-renowned orchestra and chamber ensemble centred in the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London England. Violist Robert Smissen spoke of Marriner emphasizing that he “instilled a sense of enjoyment, purpose and the highest level of musicianship” in each individual member of the ensemble. Last night’s sold-out concert was dedicated to Marriner's memory.
The Chamber Ensemble is made up of the principals of the Academy’s orchestra founded by Marriner in 1958. It includes members who have been with the orchestra for decades. Smissen noted that there are over two hundred collective years of the orchestra and conductor working together.
Last night’s concert was a demonstration of the variety of colours possible with various combinations of the eight musicians included on the tour. The music of Rossini, Mozart and Schubert heard last night may have only spanned a couple of decades at the turn of the 19th century, but the three works were as different as they were joyfully upbeat.
Gioachino Rossini’s String Sonata No. 1 in G Major, written when Rossini was only twelve, had the unusual instrumentation of two violins, cello and double bass. The striking depth of sound was immediately apparent. The tuneful interplay between the two violins delivered a jocular, heart-warming sense of frivolity. Violinist and leader Tomo Keller displayed a magnificent sound and an energy emanating from accurate, crisp, rhythmic playing. His melodic line soared. The back and forth interplay with fellow violinist Harvey De Souza was delightful.
A second combination of instruments in Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Major for Horn and Strings, K. 407 included violin, two violas, cello and horn. Here the attention was centred on hornist Stephen Stirling. Like the more familiar horn concertos of Mozart, this work was written as a showpiece for the instrument. With the uncompromising range and dexterity required, it's amazing that it could ever be performed with a natural horn. Stirling made the instrument sing. With flawless intonation and a seeming unlimited breath support, his phrasing was impeccable.
Following intermission, the main event of the evening was Schubert’s masterpiece, Octet in F major for Winds and Strings, Op. 166, D.803. The hour of music contained in the six movements of the work seemed timeless. The transcendent music took me to a place of unbridled joy. The variety of colours achieved by five string instruments, clarinet, horn and bassoon was masterful. There was suspense, drama, beautiful melody, striking contrasts between movements and a jubilant spirit throughout. Clarinetist James Burke was brilliant. His solo at the beginning of the second movement was especially uplifting. The final movement had an intensity of its own; the slow introduction was followed by an inspiringly joyful conclusion.
The programme was meant to delight and the roar of the audience with its spontaneous standing ovation was proof that it did just that.
The evening of exquisite chamber music was not over with the conclusion of the main event. Bee Unger (bassoonist) along with a string quartet of fellow students from The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School thrilled the audience with another half-hour of great chamber music in the Leslie & Anna Dan Galleria. The string quartet included Hua-Chu Huang, violin; Jennifer Murphy, violin; Madlen Breckbill, viola; and James Churchill, cello.
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble celebrates the memory of Sir Neville Marriner
Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 22nd 2016
GGS Chamber Ensemble
Photo Credit: David Richards