Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble opens Shriver Hall season in great form

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble.(Chris Watling)

Since its founding in London nearly six decades ago by Sir Neville Marriner, who died early this month at 92, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has enjoyed a prominent position in the classical music world.

The Academy's chamber orchestra has made a trillion or so recordings over the years; the Academy Chamber Ensemble, formed in 1967, has its own substantial discography. Both groups also do a great deal of touring.


The Chamber Ensemble's current visit to the States included a stop in Baltimore Sunday evening to open the 51st season of Shriver Hall Concert Series.

Dedicating the performance in memory of Marriner -- "We wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for him," violist Robert Smissen told the audience -- the musicians proceeded to play the heck out of a demanding program.


Technical elan, an Academy trademark, could be freshly appreciated at the program's start when ensemble leader Tomo Keller and fellow violinist Harvey De Souza, Smissen, cellist Stephen Orton and bassist Lynda Houghton delivered Mozart's D major Divertimento (K. 136).

There were extraordinary details of dynamics and tone coloring to be savored in the finale, even though taken at a fearless speed. I particularly enjoyed how De Souza made the second violin's rapid-fire lines register.

Franz Hasenöhrl's droll deconstruction of Strauss' mighty orchestral tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel" helps you appreciate all over again just how advanced in harmony and thematic development the original 1895 work was.

The stripped-down arrangement received a taut, colorful performance from Keller, Houghton, James Burke (clarinet), Julie Price (bassoon, replacing the bassoonist pictured in the Academy-provided photo) and Stephen Stirling (horn).

All of the players came together after intermission for the main event, Schubert's Octet.

Patterned after Beethoven's Septet (Schubert added a second violin), the Octet is packed with sunny, songful ideas. If an occasional trace of bittersweetness peeks through, it is quickly swept away.

Although created during a deflating time for the composer, the score could not sound much more upbeat. It should have provided Schubert a lasting lift, but it went unpublished until 25 years after the composer's death.

His endless melodic invention and uncanny ability to use all eight instruments to prismatic effect yields a work brimming with character. The Academy musicians seemed to revel in the notes and they shaped an absorbing, virtuosic performance.

Tempos were deftly chosen to maintain a firm sense of momentum in the long, six-movement work, but there was no slighting of tender moments -- the Adagio was quite spacious, not to mention enhanced by Burke's elegant clarinet phrasing.

Other highlights included a delectable mix of drive and vibrant coloring in the dancing third movement. And the ensuing Theme and Variations unfolded with remarkable expressive vitality; Stirling's sterling horn playing and Keller's finely spun contributions added greatly.

All in all, an impressive night for chamber music-making -- and a strong start to a valued concert series.

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