It is no surprise that the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields has become the mantra for quality on classical music radio stations across the world. Their brilliant performance at Symphony Hall last Friday is nothing if not evidence of the high standard they maintain.
The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was founded in 1959 by Sir Neville Marriner--the other half of the radio mantra--as a small chamber ensemble without a conductor. Its name comes from the church in London's Trafalgar Square in which it originally performed. Since then the Academy has grown, performing and touring as a chamber ensemble and expanding at times to a full symphony orchestra. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is responsible for almost 1,000 recordings, more than any other chamber orchestra in the world. It is known popularly for its recordings of soundtracks for Amadeus and other films--most recently The English Patient. The Academy tours widely, and has performed in North America annually since 1980. In 1993, the Academy became the first orchestra to be granted the Queen's Award for Export Achievement.
Artistic Director Iona Brown led the orchestra as concertmaster in Friday's concert, which consisted of many Baroque favorites: Handel's Concerto grosso in A minor, the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, the Concerto in D minor for Harpsichord and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, all by Bach.
The Concerto grosso in A minor is an excellent example of Handel's work not only as a composer, but as a master businessman. Handel wrote this piece keeping in mind the conservative taste of the English aristocracy who would comprise his audience. The Concerto is therefore in the style of Corelli, who was London's favorite composer at the time. While Handel has sometimes been criticized for his use of other composers' work and imitation of their styles, in retrospect it becomes clear that such composing techniques were a survival tactic. The orchestra's performance of this piece was charming, and introduced the audience to the impeccable unison and rich sound of the ensemble.
Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 is similar to the concerto, and featured flutist Jaime Martin as soloist accompanied by orchestra. A collection of dances composed in the French style, the Suite was clearly the most brilliant piece on Friday's program. With no conductor, the music seemed to come straight from the performers without an intermediary.
Martin's performance was incredible: his tone was rich with a gorgeous vibrato, and he performed the tricky staccato scales perfectly--as Shakespeare might say, "trippingly on the tongue." Martin also projected exquisite stage presence, playing to the sections of the orchestra that shared his melody, and ending each movement with a flourish of his flute and an intense look, reminiscent of a tango dancer, toward his fellow musicians.
The audience responded wildly to Martin's performance, summoning him back to center stage for three curtain calls. At the last bow, Martin and the ensemble played the Badinerie section of the Suite once again for the enthralled audience. They played the movement in an extremely whimsical style. Martin's improvised virtuosic flourishes, coupled with the orchestra's drastic dynamic changes, brought chuckles and cheers from an audience that was probably unaccustomed to such notice from the performers.
The Bach Concerto in D minor for Harpsichord and Orchestra was an intriguing piece, evoking dark Transylvanian images through the spidery tone of the harpsichord and imperceptible shifts from major to minor keys. Soloist Ian Watson performed superbly, though it seemed there were a few intonation problems in the high register of the harpsichord.
The last piece, Bach's famous Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, featured Iona Brown on violin, Jaime Martin on flute, and Ian Watson on harpsichord. It was a charming, polished piece to end the concert, with hypnotic rhythms and fascinating fugal patterns.
Highlighting the sublime concert was the Academy's ease and grace onstage. From the first notes of tuning heard from backstage to the grand and perfectly controlled performance, small details of the musicians' gestures marked the orchestra as both startlingly elegant and endearing. One had the sense that these performers were not only consummate musicians but also good friends who truly enjoyed the music they were playing--confirmed by the fact that they needed no conductor. They seemed to move and breathe together as a body.
The level of communication between performer and listener in gestures such as the encore to the Orchestral Suite hearken directly to the roots of Bach's music. While in Symphony Hall it is somewhat difficult to conceive of the intimate surroundings in which Bach's and Handel's music was originally performed, the Academy succeeded in decreasing distances and blurring the boundaries between stage and audience. In the end, both shared a euphoric experience. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields reminds one that classical music is not meant to be a stodgy highbrow event, but a form of exchange.