Academy Chamber Ensemble explores choice rarities in rewarding program

October 13, 2018 at 10:33 am

By Andrew J. Sammut

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble performed Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble performed Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble offered a welcome opportunity to hear some choice rarities (in size and scoring) Friday night performance at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, the program featured composers’ experiments with instrumentation as well as a chance for the ASMF musicians to showcase their personalities and humor.

Carl Nielsen’s Serenata In Vano quintet (1915) tells the story of a failed romantic proposition in three concise movements. ASMF took the seductive, slightly tongue-in-cheek variations on a folkish theme at a fast clip, with clarinetist James Burke’s focusing on fleet articulation more than singing tone. The central Poco Adagio is the heartfelt serenade proper and featured delicate voicings for bassoon and horn; the ensemble tuttis combined classical restraint with thoroughly modern harmonies. Bassist Lynda Houghton’s brief but lyrical solo song was a split-second show-stealer. The final section depicts the would-be serenader marching off in amusement, unacknowledged  for his efforts, with funny “hiccups” (horn player Stephen Stirling’s term) from the lower strings.

A slightly drier humor permeated Jean Françaix’s Octet for Winds And Strings ‘À huit’ from 1972. The twining lines from clarinetist Burke and bassoonist Julie Price in the opening Moderato may have also signaled earnest romance, but the succeeding Allegrissimo became a playfully sophisticated chase. Blue notes and the jittery energy of pre-war jazz animate Françaix’s writing, and ASMF added its own rhythmic lilt as well as sharp string accents behind the winds, including a Gershwin-esque glissando from Burke. The triple-time Scherzo, with its violin runs, string pizzicati and repeated horn calls, morphed into an exercise in sheer motoric energy as well as rhythmic and harmonic deconstruction.

The Adagio of Françaix’s octet wistfully reprises the opening theme. Lyrical and suave with a slight edge, this is more modernist writing that is beautiful and direct music without ever being superficial. The concluding Movement De Valse begins as a dainty waltz, moving through variations that turn up the dissonance and irony before an abrupt end. ASMF delighted in the abrupt tonal and emotional shifts, leaping into sections with barely a breath, though the coda allowed a brief display for purely mellifluous string playing.

Franz Schubert’s epic 1824 Octet–as long as the two previous works combined–concluded the program.

Schubert was commissioned to write his octet as a companion to Beethoven’s Septet In E-Flat– the same work that Nielsen was commissioned to pair with his Serenata In Vano. Françaix, in turn, dedicated his own octet to Schubert. While the program made clever sense on paper, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields connected the dots with their own very personal playing.

From the first bars, the instrumental balance was full-bodied yet transparent, the phrasing consistently strong yet flexible. Powerful bass lines maintained a sense of forward momentum in the Adagio, as forceful tuttis split into graceful duets for Burke and first violinist Tomo Keller. Rather than a full-blown frolic, the third movement Scherzo was artfully restrained, showing both the ensemble’s sense of pacing as well as showing off one-man rhythm section cellist Stephen Orton in contrapuntal bass lines.

Schubert’s concept of the Octet is more symphonic than chamber-oriented, with frequent concertante passages for clarinet with strings.

Yet the fourth movement, a set of variations on a love duet from Schubert’s Die Freunde Von Salamanka, featured more ensemble colors: the third variation’s horn leads over ascending strings, Ortiz’s rich reedy tone and smooth dips into the lower register in the fourth variation; and a sixth variation letting Robert Smissen “sing” through his viola.

One could almost dance to the Minuet, and  the closing movement’s menacing Andante Molto and upbeat Allegro made the finale explode at full-throttle. It was a fitting climax to this well-paced program.

Andrew J. Sammut has written about early music and traditional jazz for Early Music America, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, All About Jazz, and his own blog. He lives in Cambridge.

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