The intimate Sunrise Theater was the ideal venue for infrequently heard repertory. The sell-out audience of the Classical Concert Series heard an opening concert that featured the finely honed playing of The Academy of St. Martin-in-the Fields Chamber Ensemble in a carefully balanced program. Like dining in a fine restaurant, two certain crowd pleasers were separated by a “tart cleansing sorbet” in the form of a mildly astringent 20th-century work. A common thread that ran through all but the opening work on the program, including the seductive encore, was what Leader and First Violinist Kenneth Sillito called “works by teenagers.”
All regions of our state are accustomed to first-rate and polished performances of the string quartet repertory. We too seldom get to hear the many fine works for larger combinations of strings such as quintets, sextets, septets, octets, etc. And when we do, the ensemble too often consists of under-rehearsed additional players melded, more or less successfully, with an existing string quartet. The ASMF’s Chamber Ensemble was formed to provide players who are able to refine this repertory to the same technical finish we expect from touring string quartets.
It is hard enough to find recordings of Antonín Dvorák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48. Written in only two weeks by the thirty-seven year old composer in 1878, the sextet was composed after the extremely popular Slavonic Dances, Op. 46. Similar flowing melodic themes abound in the first movement. The second movement is in the well-known form of a dumka with its familiar pattern of repeated, strongly contrasted sections while the third movement is a vigorous scherzo based on the furiant with all the cross-rhythms so characteristic of the dance form. The last movement, which lacks the feeling of spontaneity in the first three, consists of five variations followed by an accelerating stretto which the composer seems reluctant to abandon.
While Dvorák’s sextet is enjoyable, it is not one of his top chamber music pieces. The ASMF Chamber Ensemble’s musicians made the strongest possible case for it with refined playing that featured tight ensemble, alert rhythms, and sweetly phrased melodies. Highlights of the first movement were the warm sound of both violists in stretches that featured independent writing and the pairing of one viola, beautifully blended with the cello, set against gentle accompaniment. Throughout the concert the give-and-take of cues between players was a constant delight. The first violist seemed to give at least as many cues as the leader Sillito.
It is amazing just how much of the mature Dmitri Shostakovich is present in such student works as his First Piano Trio or his Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, Op. 11, which followed the Dvorák. Commenting from the stage before the performance, Sillito described the plethora of string techniques present — ponticello, spiccato, various kinds of pizzicatos — along with deliberately acidic high string effects. He quipped that the composer must have almost wanted a ninth player! Shortly into the scherzo there is a long pause after which the cellist bows his C string, his lowest, almost like Shostakovich longed for a double bass. The ASMF players gave full value to all the dissonant elements.
Described as that “miraculous creation” by Sillito, the ASMF gave a vital performance of teenaged Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat, Op. 20. This work is programmed with some frequency but usually either two established string quartets are joined or some ad hoc group is assembled. Unless the performance is repeated as part of a tour, there is usually a want of polish. This is where the ASMF excelled with silken string playing and players phrasing and gauging dynamics as one. Sunrise Theater’s intimate acoustics encouraged unforced dynamics with glowing string tone and some of the most refined and delicate pp that I have ever heard in this piece. This was the true chamber music experience.
Before introducing the encore, Sillito repeated an after concert comment from the previous night’s concert. A patron said that he loved the concert but wondered why they had to play the Shostakovich. Sillito replied that you can’t eat dessert all the time. The Russian piece was like a cleansing sorbet between courses at a fine restaurant. The ASMF’s encore was sweet enough, a skilled transcription for octet of Gershwin’s song “Summertime,” a commission by the then teenage Timothy Jackson.