The Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Just a very quick post this morning about a concert I went to last night at St David’s Hall.

It was a last-minute decision to go and hear The Academy of St Martin in the Fields as I’ve been too busy these days to do much forward planning of non-work activities. However, when I saw that Beethoven’s First Symphony was on the menu I decided to go for it and even persuaded a couple of friends, Ed and Haley, to come along.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1  was the work that opened the concert, in fact, with music director  Joshua Bell conducting from a seated position and playing violin at the same time; at times the expansive gestures he made with his bow threatened to put someone’s eye out.

Perhaps the orchestra hadn’t really warmed up but I found the performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony rather flat. It’s a piece I really love – especially the last movement, which has all the ebullience of a young man making his way in a world that’s rich in possibilities, as well as paying affectionate homage to his predecessors (especially in this case Haydn and Mozart). In last night’s concert, however, I thought the wind instruments (especially the horns) lacked bite and focus and a great deal of the exuberant energy of the last movement was lost.

Next piece up was new to me, the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. For this, Joshua Bell stood centre stage while he played the violin role (beautifully, in fact). Based on a series of Scottish folk songs, this work is pretty (in a slightly mushy way). Not really my cup of tea but I did enjoy Joshua Bell’s poised and expressive violin playing. The orchestra, with a beefed up brass section,  played this one better too.

After the interval we had Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), with Joshua Bell back in eye-threatening mode, in place among the first violins. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mendelssohn because his music always seems so beautifully crafted. Some find him a bit twee and cosy, but the Scottish Symphony is a fine work that takes the listener on a long and dramatic journey through a varied musical landscape. I thought last night’s performance was very fine indeed. When I leave Cardiff I’ll certainly miss having so many opportunities to hear world-class music live!

When we emerged from St David’s Hall, it was bucketing down so we made for a local restaurant for a late supper, a glass or two of wine, and a large amount of departmental gossip. By the time we’d finished chatting and drinking, the rain had gone and I had a pleasant walk home without getting drenched. I’ll miss the Cardiff rain too. Sort of.

6 Responses to “The Academy of St Martin in the Fields”

  1. I’m not sure when the conductor-only stuff started, but certainly during Baroque times there was no separate conductor but rather one of the players played this role as well as playing an instrument.

  2. Beethoven directing his own work might be either sitting at or standing by a piano .. not that it would necessarily be a concerto, but in case he needed to point out the odd note. He probably did fulfil what we’d think of as a normal ‘conductor’ role – http://www.musicofyesterday.com/history/1913/April/Spohr_on_Beethoven_as_a_Conductor.php
    and there is the story of him having to be turned round after finishing conducting the first performance of the Ninth to see the applause.
    If Bell wanted to be a player-conductor in the old tradition I think he should have stood centre stage rather than trying to share a desk…

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s what he did for the Bruch, but that is basically similar to a violin concerto. For the other two pieces he sat down in the position normally occupied by the leader…

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I seem to think that conducting came in as a widespread practice during the later classical period.

    Some conducting was done much earlier, as the story of the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687 shows: he conducted by striking the floor with a long stick but on one occasion hit his toe, which in turn became septic, leading to his death.

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