Outstanding in their fields

Chamber Music Concerts has been bringing world-class musicians to the Rogue Valley for 25 years. This past weekend I caught the concert that preceded the official opening of the organization's 2008-2009 season.

On stage at Southern Oregon University's Music Recital Hall was the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. Hearing the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble right in our own backyard was a rare treat.

There is a great legacy behind these performers. Their home base, the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, was first mentioned in 1222. Handel, Mozart and other stars in the European musical firmament performed music in the church in the 1700s.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was founded in 1959 and the name Sir Neville Marriner, its principal violinist and conductor, was forever linked to it.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble was created in 1967 to perform the larger chamber works. Members of the ensemble are among principal players of the orchestra. That means they have worked together regularly. Usually if a quartet wants to perform a sextet or an octet, they fill the extra positions with guest musicians.

You could tell that the performers in the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble had considerable history together. They smile at each other and they anticipate one another musically.

The ensemble played two different programs on two separate nights. I attended the second performance, which was sold out. The program began with Richard Strauss' String Octet in C major, Op. 176.

The very first notes established the high level of musicianship we were to experience that night. The sound was smooth, silky. Delicate, like the lights playing on the highly polished surfaces of the two violins. There was no sense of the bows abrading the strings.

When the piece was finished and the ensemble bowed to the audience and left the stage, the audience was all astir — in hushed voices, of course. I looked around and saw some young people, mostly college age, among the older people. We were all very fortunate to be there.

Before playing the next piece, one of the musicians mentioned they had been in a music class with some Ashland High School students and were "bowled over" by the level of discipline and teaching. They found the school's program "really exemplary."

After that moment of local pride, we were spirited away by Dvorak's very folksy Sextet for Strings in A major, Op. 48. The same silky technique prevailed although the piece was not as lush or soulful to me as the Strauss. It was more animated. The fact that we were listening to wooden instruments performed from a stage with a wooden floor and surrounded on three sides by wooden walls lent an additional richness to the sound.

Visually, it was fun to watch first one violin and one viola playing together, then both violins, then a violin and a cello. The bows moving both in synch with one another and then separately provided another visual delight. There's nothing like a live concert to capture all of the nuances.

The second half of the program featured the four movements of Joachim Raff's String Octet in C major, Op. 176. Two other members of the ensemble joined the others providing four violins, two violas and two cellos.

The additional two instruments made the texture richer, which really paid off in the exquisite Andante moderato. It was melodic and lyrically beautiful. The rest of the piece was lively, with lots of energetic bowing, ending with a theatrical flourish.

The audience rose for a standing ovation and wouldn't let the musicians leave. When the ensemble sat down for an encore they played "Summertime" by George Gershwin. There were a few chuckles from the audience, assuming the piece was meant to be light and frivolous.

But the familiar song from "Porgy and Bess" continued in a non-bluesy "classical" style with the same sensibilities as the previous pieces on the program. To hear the melody played so hauntingly on the cello, and then later on viola, gave the song a whole new quality, ending the program on just the right note in an evening full of such notes.

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