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Monday, October 15, 2012

No Debate about It

From the Vault Dept.: In this corner, violinist Iona Brown. In this corner . . . How shamelessly I drew on then-current events to liven this 1988 concert review.


IN THESE MONTHS of pretend debates that serve only to amuse us with adversarial wisecracks, it’s nice to be treated to a musical context where adversarial behavior is much more exciting.The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields visited Proctor’s Theatre last night with a program of works by Mozart and Stravinsky, the stunning centerpiece of which was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra.

Iona Brown
Iona Brown, who leads the group, was the violinist, squared off against violist Nobuko Imai. Both dug into the piece innocently enough, doubling the opening tutti, but as soon as the orchestral exposition was over a shimmering solo unison passage in octaves announced the start of the match.

The classical concerto is a “look what I can do” showcase that lays bare the soloist’s technical and interpretive abilities. With two in the ring, there’s an extra spark of tension. And this concerto plays up that tension.

Much of the fun comes from alternating arpeggio passage work that keeps fingers and bows a blur. Using a formula done to death in the pop song realm, the passages are also alternately higher-pitched, which on a string instrument provokes a more brilliant sound.

Where the first movement is a clever, arch colloquy, the second is a slow lament in which the instruments keen together. Like all of Mozart’s most persuasive lyrical moments, it has unwritten words that the best soloists, like Brown and Imai, discover for themselves.

The finale is the inevitable rondo: bright, fleecy. And amusing, as the shrill, Bush-like cry of the fiddle eggs on the Dukakis alto of the viola. Unlike those two, however, these two gave us neither gaffe nor bombast. Just unadulterated Mozart, wonderfully complemented by the Academy ensemble.

Nobuko Imai
This tour offers the additional instrumentation of horns and oboes, and who better than Mozart to feature? The concert opened with his Symphony No. 29 in A Major, establishing with the purr of the first phrases how skillfully the 25-piece group can maintain the dynamic range you’d expect from an orchestra much larger.

Even more important: it’s obvious that the members enjoy playing the music. Mozart satisfies only those who court him with enthusiasm. And this is one group that’s been in the forefront of teaching us new ways of appreciating his music, wrenching it away from the four-square, grand-piano approach of the past many decades.

Stravinsky’s 1946 Concerto in D was the perfect contrast, a work in three short movements that takes a sardonic romp through the classicism, finding time to cock a snoot at European lushness as well.

Although it may not be fair to suggest that the composer wrote vituperatively; he celebrated what he heard and liked by reinterpreting it in his own language.

This concerto is really a concerto grosso, giving the whole ensemble that chance to shine. Making it sound as transparent as the Academy does is no easy job, and further tribute to the polish that goes into everything they play. The last movement throws a wicked ostinato from section to section and it seemed almost like a contest to see who could jump on it with the cleanest result. The old concerto spirit again.

Following a standing ovation, soloists Brown and Imai calmed the audience with a short, lovely andante cantabile from one of Mozart’s solo duos for that pair of instruments.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Oct. 10, 1988

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