The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Violinist Martin Burgess talks about the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, which performs Mendelssohn, Brahms and Shostakovich in Madison this Friday night

September 26, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

The season’s opening concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater this Friday night, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m. promises to be a MUST-HEAR event for all classical music fans, but especially for chamber music fans and particularly for string players. 

That’s because the concert will feature the Chamber Ensemble (below) of the famed, respected and prolific chamber orchestra The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. They will perform Mendelssohn’s Octet, which The Ear considers to be Felix’s very best work. Also on the program are Brahms’ lovely String Sextet in G Major and Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo.

Tickets are  $25, $36 and $42 with $10 for UW students. Call (608) 262-2201. For more information plus a video and audio sample, the group’s home website and links to a review, visit:

Recently violinist Martin Burgess (below) granted The Ear an e-mail interview about the ensemble and its concert:

When and why was the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble created? What need does it fill? What is your relationship with the more famous chamber orchestra?

The roots of the orchestra were originally performing baroque music with small forces. The chamber ensemble was created in 1967 to perform larger scale chamber works (from quintets to octets) with players who regularly perform together, rather than a string quartet plus guests.

The members of the ensemble are principals with the chamber orchestra. With the octet this means we are the front desks of the string section.

I am also a member of a string quartet that has joined with another quartet to perform this repertoire. With the Academy, I feel that there is a different approach to performing. There is no feeling of “us and them”! We are acutely aware to our own internal balance and personality as an octet.

On a practical level, there is another obvious advantage to the ensemble is that we can perform in venues that are out of reach of the chamber orchestra.

Can you give a capsule of history of the group with highlights including awards, recordings, mission, current and future projects including tours and records? Is this your fist visit to the Midwest and Madison?

The Academy was formed in 1958 from a group of leading London musicians, and working without a conductor, the Academy gave its first performance in its namesake church on November 13, 1959. Today, the Academy performs some 100 concerts around the world each year, with as many as 15 tours each season.  In 1993, the Academy became the first and only orchestra to be awarded the Queen’s Award for Export.

The Academy’s partnership with its founder Sir Neville Marriner (below) remains the most recorded pairing of orchestra and conductor and, with over 500 recordings under its belt, the Academy is one of the most recorded chamber orchestras in the world.

Originally directed by Sir Neville from the leader’s chair, the collegiate spirit and flexibility of the original small, conductor-less ensemble remains an Academy hallmark. This tradition continues today with the appointment of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell (below) as its new Music Director.

We have been to the Midwest several times before and are really looking forward to appearing in Madison!

Could you comment briefly on the program you will perform:

We are so lucky to have the wonderful repertoire that we are to perform in Madison.

The sextet by Brahms (below) was partially an outpouring of emotion from a break up with one of Brahms’ great loves. The letters of her first name (Agathe) help form the motifs that play an important role throughout the piece. I love just letting the intensity of this music flow past me.

The octet repertoire is obviously at the heart of the program. It is amazing that both these pieces were written by great composers who were only in their teens.

Mendelssohn (below) was just 16 when he produced this phenomenon! It gives the feeling that, like Mozart, once he had commenced writing his pen did not stop until it was completed. It has all that both a performer and listener could ask for – wonderful themes and zest for life projected through creative part writing so that everyone has an important role to play.

Shostakovich (below) was 19 when he completed these two pieces. They were not written consequently, the first (Prelude) was written as a memorial to a poet friend. Both passionate and angry, this music broods then overflows with the composer’s reaction to what has happened. The Scherzo is an extraordinary explosion of emotion! It is impossible but to be driven along by the insistence of the energy produced. Shostakovich shows his incredible talent for exploring new sound worlds!

Posted in Classical music

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