Perfect was the operative word Sunday night at the Midland Center for the Arts, which played host to the world-famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Now 45 years old, the Academy is the preeminent, most admired, most honored, and most recorded chamber orchestra in the world. So ubiquitous were its recordings (now numbering over 500), in the 1960s and 70s that when a radio announcer said “…performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields,” listeners would automatically finish by saying “…directed by Neville Marriner.”
Marriner’s creation, for which at age 80 he still serves as Life President, is universally known and admired, but the concept of chamber orchestra still sometimes has to be explained. One Midland audience member, on entering the hall and seeing the 21 chairs on stage, exclaimed rather loudly, “What a teeny orchestra!”
Following in the huge footprints of Marriner and the late (and much mourned) Iona Brown as leader of the Academy is its current Artistic Director Kenneth Sillito. Sillito first became known to American audiences as leader of the Academy’s “rival” ensemble, the English Chamber Orchestra in the 1970s. Sillito’s right to sit in the hallowed leader’s chair is unquestioned, and the performance he led Sunday night was exemplary of that word which has come to define the Academy -- perfect.
First came the Chamber Symphony by Shostakovich, a rich and at times awkward work, heard in its arrangement for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, highly renowned as director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. As expected, the Academy gave a seamless performance, with Sillito delivering a wonderfully mournful solo in the opening Largo from his seat as leader and concertmaster. The transitions from the sparkling second movement, to the delightfully insouciant third, and finally to the unusual two Largo movements that end the work, were hauntingly beautifully crafted. The quiet coda that fades to breathless silence held the audience in totally silent suspense.
Pianist Christopher O’Riley was the evening’s guest artist, heard first in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12. Though not the mature work that the 26-year-old Mozart would write in the next years of his life, the concerto and its 18th century Viennese elegance sparkle in every measure. O’Riley painted beautiful colors, especially in the evocative second movement, and blazed through the faster sections. With the exception of his tendency to push the tempo into slightly uneven “rushes” at times that made fuzzy some of the figures, mostly his articulation was razor-sharp.
After intermission, O’Riley, Sillito and the Academy returned for a performance of Liszt’s Malediction, in a special edition which adds Liszt’s interpolation of a quote from Schubert’s song Du bist die Ruh. O’Riley’s playing was suitably demonic and alternatingly inspiring and introspective, and the Academy complied with a bravura, nuanced performance. Principal cellist Stephen Orton’s lovely reading of the Schubert passage brought a hug from O’Riley at the work’s conclusion.
The evening’s tour de force was certainly Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, which (like Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik) represents its composer’s most perfect rendering of the form. Sillito and the Academy returned the favor and delivered a near-perfect reading, albeit a thoroughly English one. It was more Elgar than Tchaikovsky, as not present was the Russian Romanticism so associated with the piece, the grand gesture, rubato, high drama, and strong use of tension/release. Christopher George, the principal second violinist, seemed to want single handedly to infuse that passion into the work, and even with his bouncing, attacking, with hair flying, he nevertheless never strayed from the group’s perfection.
That said, the sonorities, articulation, clarity of line, and precision were nothing short of brilliant, and the almost silent transition from the Elegie to the Finale was soul-searingly beautiful.
Not surprisingly, the audience rewarded the performance with a standing ovation.
Though at least one patron was heard leaving the hall afterward lamenting that it had purged the magic mood created by the incredible Tchaikovsky, after two curtain calls Sillito led the Academy in a peppy encore of the second movement Allegro di molto of Mozart’s rarely heard Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137.
Another perfect note.