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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Academy Is

From the Vault Dept.: Writing about music for so many years put me in contact with some of my heroes, but it took a while for any interviewing skills to develop. Here’s a review of a 1984 performance by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in which Iona Brown did a dazzling job with Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” It’s followed by the advance I wrote a few days earlier, a piece that included quotes from Brown, but what a pathetic interview it must have been if that was the best I could draw from her!


LISTENING TO THE ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN-IN-THE-FIELDS on records gives the impression that some engineer must have figured out a way to get just about the most gorgeous string sound available: more than 400 records attest to this.

Antonio Vivaldi
Listening to the musicians in person proves it was no engineer at all: They simply sound magnificent, and they’re so good they can make the music do whatever they want it to do. That they have splendid taste means the music will do what it ought to do.

All of this was borne out by the academy’s concert Tuesday evening at Proctor’s Theater. Led by violinist Iona Brown, this 16-piece ensemble showed more understanding and nuance with three works than most groups come up with in two or three seasons.

Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136, which opened the program, began with a quick, incisive allegro that captured all of Mozart’s humor and energy, and set the standard for the music to come. The ensemble’s intonation is superb; the musicians play with such precision they are able to effect subtle dynamic changes with marvelous results.

The academy has a somewhat softer normal volume than most similarly sized groups, which gives them a better base for forays into contrasts of dynamics.

Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Opus 110a, is an arrangement of his String Quartet No. 8. It is a five-movement work, played without pauses, with three of the movements marked largo. In their performance, the Academy musicians demonstrated their ability to play softly but with a bed of tension. The piece is an unsettling one, and their performance supported all of its requirements.

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was quite a contrast. Iona Brown was the soloist, and harpsichordist Alan Cuckston joined the group for this piece, or set of pieces, really: The four concertos each portray a different time of year, according to a description supplied by a set of sonnets.

There has been a rash of recordings lately which point up the programmatic aspects of the “Seasons,” and this performance followed that trend, but only to a point. While the idiosyncracies of animal calls, drunken revelry and slipping on the ice could be detected by those who know the score, the concertos were played for the sheer beauty of the music, too.

Ms. Brown’s approach to the music is sweet and full, with none of the shrillness the hard-core Baroque fans favor. Technically she and the ensemble were well-prepared for Vivaldi’s requirements, and the group ended the evening with a charming encore: A repeat of the slow movement of the “Winter” concerto.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, 11 October 1984


Academy to Play Proctor’s

“SOMETIMES WE’RE A small symphony orchestra, or a chamber orchestra, or a chamber group, and there seems to be a demand for us in all three of those capacities.”

That’s how Iona Brown, leader of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, describes the world-renowned chamber music group which will perform at Proctor’s Theater in Schenectady on Tuesday.

The last time the group visited Schenectady. they performed at the Memorial Chapel on the Union College campus.

“Were looking forward to coming into Schenectady,” Ms. Brown said earlier this week. “I remember the public very well ... they’re rather special. They were so lively, they stick out in my mind.”

The Schenectady stop is part of a 14-concert tour of the East Coast with a Carnegie Hall date and a performance at Lincoln Center booked on either side of Tuesday night’s concert.

The Academy has been performing since 1959, when a group of London-based players chose to bring attention to what was then a neglected body of works for chamber orchestra –  putting themselves in the forefront of the resurgence of interest in music of the baroque era.

Concerts were given at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, located in Trafalgar Square. Today the group, or one of the smaller units made up of Academy members, tours throughout the world.

Ms. Brown was born in England and studied throughout Europe. She took violin lessons with noted virtuoso Henryk Szeryng, spent three years as a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra and joined the Academy shortly after its inception.

In 1974, Ms. Brown began conducting the string ensemble of the Academy and made recordings as director and soloist with that group, the most recent being the complete violin concertos of Mozart. The violinist is also artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and a regular performer at the Promenade Concerts in London.

“We all do other things outside of the Academy,” Ms. Brown said, “but we have our sort of basic, first eleven, and in general, the roster doesn’t change much. We’ve been the same for over ten years.”

With over 400 recordings to their credit, and so much international acclaim for both the records and the group’s concerts, it’s no wonder that the members would be reluctant to leave.

As the chamber group’s leader and concertmaster, Ms. Brown will play the violin solos on the four concertos that comprise the “Four Seasons” by Vivaldi.

Tuesday’s program will begin with a Divertimento by Mozart, a three-movement work for string orchestra written in 1772.

The Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra by Shostakovich is actually a transcription by Rudolf Barshai of that composer’s String Quartet No. 8. Shostakovich wrote it in 1960 “in memory of the victims of war and fascism” and the piece contains autobiographical references as well, including the composer’s own musical signature, D-S-C-H (played D-E flat-C-B).

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” come from a set of violin concertos published as Op. 8 under the title “Experiments with Harmony and Inventiveness.”

The seasons are written to follow the texts of four sonnets written by the composer, with specific references made to the sights and sounds of nature that he reproduced in the music.

The concert will begin at 8 p.m.. Tickets are $20, $17 and $12 and are available at the theater’s box office in Canal Square, Schenectady, at the Palace Theater on Clinton Avenue in Albany, at Community Box Office outlets, Drome Sound, and Carl Company.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, 5 October 1984

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