Friday’s performance from the British superstar chamber orchestra, Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF), under the direction of American violinist Joshua Bell, will certainly be remembered as one of the top classical music events of the year. The present configuration of the 56-year-old group is a worthy heir to the name and upholds high standards for deep musical culture: sound that is crisp, clean, balanced, and refined. The musicians seem to have tapped some magical key to heightened attention, displaying near-perfect unity and collective phrasing that flows with spiritual sway.
Bell alternated between spotlight soloist and concertmaster in a program that began with early works by J.S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, progressed to a violin showpiece by Camille Saint-Saëns, and finished with Gustav Mahler’s orchestration of a quartet by Franz Schubert.
The greatness of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042 cannot be overstated. It is an object of art so perfect and so deeply imbedded in our souls that it seems to possess necessary existence. From the familiar harpsichord-accented pulse in the first movement to the brooding low strings in the adagio, ASMF mastered the emotional range. The triple meter of the third movement nearly swung, prancing swiftly like a jig.
Baroque-finish sensibility was then put aside for Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven. If much of this symphony seems Mozart-ian in its classical craftsmanship, aspects of it herald the upcoming romantic iconoclast. Even the opening theme of the first movement is preceded by a three-minute intro that begins off-balance, as if you are entering a conversation midstream.
This concert would not have been complete without some display of Bell’s virtuosity, and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor was the ticket. Bell stood center, playing from memory, jetting through the rapid-fire coda effortlessly. The evening ended with Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden,” a work of vast range and reach. The hymn-like quality that ASMF achieved in the somber chorale was like clear glass. The tangled developments and breathless climbs had more than a few of us at the edge of our seats.