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Gil Shaham and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Gil ShahamGil Shaham was very much the Primus inter pares amid the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields during their performances of Anton Arensky’s Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, op. 50, and the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence, op. 70, at Strathmore last Sunday. The group performed beautifully, compact and like a well-oiled machine. If there was a touch of routine beneath the surface of beauty in the Arenksy, it was outshone by the sheer professionalism of these two dozen players. And not only was the Academy in good form in their WPAS-presented concert, the very fact that Arenksy – a much underrated composer – made it onto the program was a delight. Marvelously Romantic and original, even when he riffs off Tchaikovsky as in his Variations, which he first culled from a Tchaikovsky song (“Legends”), for his string quartet where it served as the second movement. It went over just as well as the concluding echt-Tchaikovsky. The Souvenir is a lush show-off piece for string ensembles, and the Academy and Shaham knew how to milk it to its maximum effect without going overboard. No wonder they elicited enthusiastic cheers and a Mozart encore.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, St. Martin in the Fields (Washington Post, February 28)
That composer was also served for the main course: with two horns and two oboes added to the 19 strings (plus Mr. Shaham), they were ready for the ‘2006 Mozart obligato’, the Violin Concerto in A Major (no. 5, K. 219), which was a delight par excellence. All European bands have plenty of Mozart experience and many have won their merits with his music, too. But apart from the English Chamber Orchestra, there isn’t an English ensemble with more Mozart running through their collective veins than the Academy. Which classical music lover hasn’t a couple of those almost iconic Philips CDs with Mozart, Marriner, and the Academy on his shelves?

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Violin Concertos 3-5,
A.Manze/English Concert
Harmonia Mundi

Gil Shaham didn’t even pretend that the band needed any guidance from him – they knew how to take care of themselves while Shaham could focus on his playing. And so he did, adding dynamism and explosiveness to the work as was a rare delight to hear. Pouncing on the music like an eager ocelot ready to play, he injected an already lively concerto with more life, still. In doing so he took risks, had small slips and tiny wobbles here and there – and it was so much better for that. Cadenzas (Mozart meets Bach) were thrown in with virtuosic ease… had he played in front of a jazz audience, spontaneous applause would have erupted – and no harm done. “Turkish” may be the fifth concerto’s nickname, but few today would find the third movement’s janissary kinks, so popular at the time of composition, particularly Turkish. But they make for nice color, rhythm, and flourishes, sprinkling the joy of this music throughout Shaham’s bravura performance of the Rondeau. The audience that had weathered the cold in droves thanked him with instantaneous standing ovations.