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Eight is enough for St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

Eight is enough for St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble plans to play a repertoire that includes 20th century works when it visits the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

A mini version of a mini version of a symphony orchestra will perform at the intimate Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa on Oct. 10.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, will consist of an octet culled from the somewhat larger Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra constructed along the lines of a symphony orchestra that's been a leader in offering Baroque and classical works, as played by a smaller forces, for almost 60 years. (The full Academy, with music director Joshua Bell, visited the Segerstrom Concert Hall the March before last.)

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But the times, they are a-changing, and the Academy ihas to change with them: Two-thirds of the program will be “contemporary” (read: 20th century).

“We’ve had players of very high standards who were, are, in chamber-music groups, so we are always reacting to one another, which keeps this group fresh,” said Stephen Orton, principal cellist of the Academy since 1984, who will play with the other four string and three wind players in works by Carl Nielsen, Jean Francaix — the contemporary portions of the program — and Franz Schubert.

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Co-founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1959 as the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (the hyphens eventually falling off), the group performed its first concert in November of that year in St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church in Westminster, London, after which the group was named. At the time it was then the only game in town playing Baroque and Classical works by no more than 40 musicians.

Playing anywhere from 150 to 200 concerts a year, it helped spark a renewed interest in music of those eras. The Academy’s Chamber Ensemble, giving up to 20 concerts a year, was formed in 1967 to play chamber music larger than the typical string quartet literature.

“But now, you can’t do that same [Baroque/Classical] repertoire, it wouldn’t be viable to do that, as the early-music people took that over,” continued Orton, who also plays with the Chilingirian String Quartet. “So the Academy had to make a few tweaks in setting the repertoire, such as doing more modern pieces. We don’t do a lot of modern pieces, but we have a mixture. And we do have Sally Beamish, who used to play viola with us, as our composer-in-residence, and we play newly commissioned works of hers.

“The first is quite a fun piece — and a bit unusual,” Orton said of Nielsen’s “Serenata in vano,” a 1914 quintet for clarinet, bassoon, French horn, cello and double-bass. “It’s about these gentlemen who sing a serenade to a lady who ignores them. They’re trying to impress her, one after the other, but it doesn’t work, and they finally realize they’ve been serenading her in vain (hence, the title), and the gentlemen then go off like a village band, rushing away. It’s rather humorous and it should appeal to the audience.”

Françaix modeled his 1972 Octet on that of Schubert, as both are scored for clarinet, bassoon, French horn and string quintet (two violins, one each of viola, cello and double-bass).

“It's a lovely, light-hearted piece of some 20 minutes," Orton said of Françaix’ Octet, “where the last movement reminds you of a Viennese music hall or a French cafe, and has a waltz that keeps coming back.”

The centerpiece of the program, Schubert's Octet in F Major, D. 893, takes up the entire second half of the evening and lasts almost an hour.

“Majestic” is how Orton described this 1824 work.

“You look at every aspect: it’s got beautiful melodies, fantastic harmonies, a lot of interplay between strings and winds,” he said. “It has charm and different moods throughout. Its very appealing to play and very appealing to listen to.

“And yes, it’s also very long. But it’s just one of the greatest pieces ever written for a chamber musician such as myself to play.”

Michael Rydzynski is a contributor to Times Community News.

IF YOU GO

What: Philharmonic Society of Orange County presents the Academy of St. Martin the Fields Chamber Ensemble

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 10

Where: Samueli Theatre, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $38

Information: (714) 556-2787 and scfta.org

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