The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields may have a music director, the peripatetic violinist Joshua Bell, but the venerable London-based group is not tied down by his schedule or that of any conductor.
A 21-member string ensemble from the academy is touring the U.S. this month without Bell, opening its journey at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Friday night with guest soloist Jeremy Denk as designated "director" and piano.
Lest one speculate that Denk may be adding another skill to his proliferating list of talents, no, he didn't actually "conduct" the academy players other than leading two J.S. Bach keyboard concertos from the piano. The rest of the time, the academy was on its own, reverting back to its origins in 1958 as a conductor-less ensemble before founder (now life president) Neville Marriner made the transition from first-desk violinist to the podium.
They started with Stravinsky's underperformed, wonderful yet tricky Concerto in D for strings — sometimes subtitled "Basle" but made right here in the Hollywood Hills in 1946. With all of its irregular accents and rhythms, the first movement must have been tough to coordinate without a conductor, and it sounded a bit stiff in execution. But the inflections, lyrical impulses and droll wit of the remaining two movements came through just fine.
Denk seemed to be having a ball barreling rambunctiously and willfully through Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. He threw in many small rubatos, dynamic gradings and other marks of expression, defying the period-performance police whenever possible. Though some of Denk's playing in Concerto No. 1 sounded blurred amid the strings, probably because of a combination of a lidless piano and the Broad acoustics, the shorter Concerto No. 5 in F Minor was clearer in texture and more conversational, phrase by phrase. I don't agree with everything Denk did with the Bach concertos — more rhythmic propulsion would have helped — but this pianist-thinker was never dull, and his Bach had a welcome sound of surprise.
For closers, the academy played Dvorák's Serenade in E beautifully without a conductor; the waltz had the right gentle swing, the scherzo went like a rocket with both warmth and zest. Everything came together.