Since being founded in 1959 by Sir Neville Marriner, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has flourished as one of the most renowned and most recognized orchestras in the world. The ASMF’s heritage traces back to its namesake church in London’s Trafalgar Square, where this conductorless collective was figuratively and literally instrumental in England’s renewed interest in Baroque music in the 1960s. Some 500 recordings later, the ASMF has now named violinist Joshua Bell as its new artistic director, thereby promising a fresh generation of adventurous programming and collaboration. On Tuesday night, Bailey Hall was presented with the ASMF in distilled form. Comprised of the orchestra’s principal players, the ASMF Chamber Ensemble continues to bring the legacy of its parent group to a broader international audience.
The results were a mixed bag of soaring catharses and unintended incidentals. These reputable musicians might have picked any number (or manner) of pieces for their performance. As it was, they played things relatively safely: two selections from the 19th century and one from the 20th made for an atmosphere that swung from quixotic to piquant at the draw of a bow. By fault of logistics, the program’s first half was flip-flopped at the last minute, thereby placing the Prelude and Scherzo of Shostakovich at the start, effectively bypassing the romanticism in which the rest of the concert would be steeped in favor of the neoclassical equivalent of a double espresso. While gorgeous in its own right—at the time of its composition (1925), Shostakovich declared the Scherzo the best thing he’d written—and filled with haunting moments, this diptych set an unsettling tone that I couldn’t quite shake.
Of the three composers represented, Brahms proved to be the most porous. His music breathes like a sponge. And yet, my heart still racing from the Shostakovich, I found difficulty in letting it soak up as much of my attention as I would have liked. Inked between 1864 and 1865, the String Sextet No. 2 is a farewell to a fiancée, Agathe von Siebold, from whom the composer had split. Traces from this emotional snap reverberate throughout the piece, which in its first movement obsessively spells Agathe’s name in hexachord. The addition of a second cello to the standard quintet seems to have opened Brahms’s sound to the symphonic possibilities of despondency, most especially in the Scherzo, which was the highlight of the performance. The Scherzo was so deeply realized, in fact, that I only found myself wondering why the rest of the piece seemed to waver on the surface of my interest. Thankfully, we had violist Robert Smissen, by far the brightest star of the evening, evoking a tremulous heartbeat, all the while underscoring the composer’s mid-range affinities and cutting some of the first violin’s incongruous glare.
Mendelssohn’s beloved Octet for Strings promised a costume change after the refreshing intermission. Composed in 1825 at the tender age of 16, it remains one of his most performed works and has been called “one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music.” That the ASMF has recorded this piece more than anyone showed in the delicacy with which the ensemble approached the dizzying Scherzo. And yet, like a Beethoven conductor who suspects that most in attendance are holding out for the Ode to Joy, the ensemble seemed to traverse the opening two movements as a courtesy toward getting there. The rousing finish did garner a standing ovation, however, so perhaps I was in the minority in feeling underwhelmed.
After thanking the audience and the many young faces populating it, Smissen lead the ensemble in a soulful rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which sounded like the Kronos Quartet, on a quiet day, in duplicate. I only wish such vibrancy had been on full display throughout.