It doesn’t get any better than this!
Eight musicians from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields appeared in concert last night at Sunset Center in Carmel under the auspices of the Carmel Music Society and proved to us once again that chamber music at its best can achieve spectacular results with modest means.
Rather than a large symphony orchestra or a blazing super virtuoso like Yuja Wang or Lang Lang, these eight players beguiled and charmed us with stylish elegance, refinement and superb, pure musicianship. A sophisticated member of the audience (and himself a musician) asked me at intermission, “Have you ever heard ensemble playing like this?”
I had been asking myself the same question. Each of the members of the ensemble, violinists Tomo Keller and Harvey De Souza, violist Robert Smissen, cellist Stephen Orton, double bass Lynda Houghton, clarinet James Burke, bassoon Julie Price and horn player Stephen Stirling had moments where their individual playing shone forth and grabbed our attention. However, it was their playing together, the give and take, the listening to the other players and blending in while enhancing the texture of the ensemble that was the glory of this evening. Although we often miss from symphony orchestras the rare ability to achieve a true pianissimo, we heard from the players last night the most exquisite control of dynamics that ranged from delicious soft playing that had substance to some full and emotional Sturm und Drang.
There were only two works on the program last night: Dvořák’s String Quintet in G Major for two violins, cello and bass, Op. 77, and Schubert’s Octet in F for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. A few minutes into the beginning of the Dvořák, the music on Robert Smissen’s stand fluttered to the floor, and they had to stop the performance and start all over. I was fine with this, for it meant we had an opportunity to hear the lovely opening duet between cello and bass twice last night. The fine playing of bassist Lynda Houghton constantly added rich sonorities that made me wish more composers wrote for this configuration of strings.
It was the final work on the program, the Schubert Octet, that made the most powerful impression. Its duration of 57 minutes was no impediment, for the performance was so tightly managed the work never outstayed its welcome. The real game change was the addition to the ensemble of clarinetist James Burke, bassoonist Julie Price and horn player Stephen Stirling. The amazing artistic playing by these players is an experience I will long remember. Never in my life have I heard more beautiful horn playing than what we heard from Stephen Stirling last night. His shaping of phrases through all ranges of dynamic changes was so creamy smooth, it took your breath away. Likewise the lovely artistic playing by clarinetist Burke and bassoonist Price was startling in its purity of sound and phrasing. No matter how many times you may have heard this great Octet, it never ceases to amaze us with its dramatic power, and on this occasion we heard a very special performance.
After a standing ovation, the players returned to stage and played “Happy Birthday” as tribute to Carmel-by-the-Sea’s centennial celebration occurring this weekend. Tonight represented the third appearance of musicians from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. We hope they will return soon.