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MUSIC REVIEW : Marriner, Academy Ensemble Return to Ambassador Auditorium

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Brisk and businesslike, Neville Marriner this week returned to Ambassador Auditorium with his longtime orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and caused a lot of noisy approbation in the Pasadena hall.

As usual, Marriner seemed to give full value to a varied program by the larger instrumental body carrying the academy name--this time around a symphonic ensemble of 45 players. Also as usual, his performances, though admirable, did not offer particular inspiration.

The lack was not in the music. Top-drawer works from Britain and Vienna--Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams’ “Thomas Tallis” Fantasia, plus symphonies by Haydn and Mozart--neatly complemented each other, showed off the ensemble’s virtuosic bents and provided musical nourishment.

But great depths were not probed, despite many opportunities. The “most recorded chamber orchestra in the world” and its 67-year-old founder and artistic director do not always operate at performance levels of high intensity, revelatory insights and regular risk-taking.

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Their many accomplishments, including flexibility, even string-sound and reliable balances are offset by occasional coarseness of tone, an apparently shrinking dynamic range--one remembers stronger contrasts in previous visits--and inconsistent transparency of orchestral textures.

The group produced many beauties on Monday night--another program was scheduled for Tuesday--notably in Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (“Miracle”) and in Mozart’s Symphony No. 34, both of which moved along brightly, almost superficially, toward jaunty conclusions. Orchestral soloists, particularly oboist Celia Nicklin, violist Anthony Jenkins and violinist Kenneth Sillito, shone at appropriate moments.

Most impressive was the ensemble’s careful limning of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, wherein its dynamic resources were outlined, if not exhausted, with remarkable finesse.

Still, a human component seemed missing even here; it is that affectionate pressure performers can bring to bear, especially on slow movements, which make those movements live and breathe. At all tempos, these readings became efficient and neat, but seldom more.

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A large and approving audience in Ambassador Auditorium seemed to feel otherwise, and at the end of the program caused Marriner & Co. to offer two encores: the Andante from Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and the Overture to Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”


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