Clef Notes on St Martin in the Field Chamber Ensemble

Academy of St Martin in the Fields—A Stirring Remembrance

 “When I wished to sing of love,
it turned to sorrow.

And when I wished to sing of sorrow,

It was transformed for me into love.”

Franz Schubert


We seem to be on a roll this season, TCA bringing thus far two of the most recorded entities possible at points, for them, of poignant, personal episodes. First, it was the Fine Arts String Quartet with the fiftieth anniversary of their leader’s entrance into his role when a thirteen-year-old, winning a prize.

This past Tuesday, it was a concert dedicated by eight players of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to a founder in 1958 and name inseparable from their legendary success, Neville Marriner, who passed away unexpectedly October 2.

What we heard, after, for many of us, a magnificent English feast, I’m told, at Holy Cross Episcopal Church down the block, was a resurrection of sublimity by an inspired crew, two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a horn, bassoon and an ethereal clarinet, in the Adagio of Schubert’s Octet. If ever there were a moment when tribute reached into the depths of heart-felt feeling, this embraced it all. Undulating as keening priests, the instrumentalists brought the lyrical into the divine, as though the vast floral arrangements on either side of the stage were real, opening and closing, hibiscus never before seen.

Of course, the musicians were in black.  academy-of-st-martin-in-the-fields-chamber-ensemble

Sir Neville, as he became, was the son of a carpenter. Who knows but that his family before him had invested in the edifice dating distantly beside Charing Cross, and whose name, referenced in 1222, at least, he appropriated legitimately, associating with cofounder John Churchill, once Master of Music there. What he built as artist, however, has been without peer, and we are witnesses to it. Few vinyl record collections of classical music exist without the famous name, unknighted as yet, astride the hyphenated version, “Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields”, which in time (the 80’s?) dropped the ancient marking.

It was the hour-long Schubert “Octet” that put us front row in the group’s historical occasion. What a wonder this piece had been preordained for us to hear! That it would be that piece, and that it would be us! And Schubert, the way we know him…well, his peers largely didn’t. He died at 31, in 1828, a year after Beethoven. The works following him posthumously were so vast in number they were thought spurious. Robert Schumann picked up his torch, and the greatest songwriter joined the Romantics. But Schubert was more than that, the architect of melody. Melody was his soul. Consider the quote above. That he could draw the “Octet” and keep us there for an hour…well, when were you bored? Had it been earlier, in his time, you would have had to have been the guest of the Archduke. You’d be cavorting, conversing and trying not to make a grand spectacle of yourself, accompanied by this glory, while its author maybe sat in a tavern and asked for peanuts.

It’s something to consider.

Here we see an exalted vision. There is more than we know. That’s what we get from a performance like the one we heard. The artists are not simply stellar, they are inspired. Instruments resonate with each other, and in ways that surprise even the performers. Craig Williams picked this up. The bassoonist, for example, wasn’t a “regular” like the others, though a prominent player in the London scene. Craig saw her as ebullient, scarcely able to contain her enjoyment.

St. Martin in the Fields is depicted in early drawings beside fields long gone. Today, the church reaches out to the world and human fields. In a very real sense it has reached out to us. But equally relevant, it has shown us our place in the world, testing yet once more the axiom from the movie “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.”

They came.

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