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October 8, 2007

St. Martin’s provides breezy relief for a muggy Friday

The University of Chicago Presents got off to a sticky start last Friday with their first concert of the year in 60-percent-humidity weather. Undaunted—and carrying fans—audience members turned out in droves to see the musicians from Britain’s acclaimed Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields Chamber Ensemble playing works of Dvorák, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn.

The Academy was formed in 1959 as a chamber group, later expanding into a full chamber orchestra. Drawn from the principal players of the orchestra, the Chamber Ensemble tours as a string octet, string sextet, and in other configurations, some including wind players. Its touring commitments are extensive, with annual visits to much of Europe and frequent tours across other continents.

The all-male chamber group began the evening with a breathy, lyrical Dvorák septet, just saved from being too schmaltzy by light bowing and mobile phrasing. Although there was a protracted wait between the first and second movements to seat latecomers, and one person behind me remarked that the chromatics of the Finale sounded like the Addams Family theme, the open whole tones characteristic of Dvorák’s music have an inherently summery feel and suited the clammy weather very well.

The second piece on the program, Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, was written when Shostakovich was just 18, composed as a conscious homage to Mendelssohn’s Octet (which was next on the program). Although the music was less accessible than the Dvorák, when the Scherzo reached its sharp and furious coda, many members of the audience jumped to their feet in enthusiastic applause.

The evening ended with Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major for Strings. Unfortunately, orchestra leader Kenneth Sillito’s breathy bowing style—which worked so well for Dvorák—felt out of place and mannered in Mendelssohn, especially in the Andante.

The ensemble’s interpretation of the Octet’s Scherzo, which the program notes described as “goblin music,” was, however, one of the high points of the evening. Inspired by lines from Goethe’s Faust, the Scherzo is slightly reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s glittering overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, full of beautifully articulated, scampering motifs.

An eight-part fugato of the Presto rounded out the Octet and received a standing ovation and three curtain calls for the ensemble. When they finally agreed to play an encore—Grieg’s second Elegiac Melody—there was a resounding sigh in the theater and intense concentration from the audience.

This sort of reaction is what makes attending a Chicago Presents concert such a treat—not only because of the world-class caliber of their guests, but because of the relationship between the audience and the artists. The subscribers all seem to know each other, and the intermission reveals a cross-section of patrons, from the elderly to the students, who themselves range from Goth to That Kid. They say interest in classical music is decreasing in this country—but not at the U of C.

Meanwhile, the artists are quite aware of their friendly patrons; this awareness gives these professional-class concerts a surprisingly informal feel. I am fairly sure that if I were to hear musicians of St. Martin’s in their home church in London, I would not see Sillito casting reproving glances at the latecomers (this one got a laugh) or feel such a degree of palpable glee at the prospect of an encore.

The University of Chicago Presents has made several administrative changes this year, moving their start times forward to 7:30 p.m. and lowering student ticket prices to $5. Both of these should hopefully provide yet more incentive for students to attend at least one of their concerts before graduating.