Young soloists noteworthy in Academy's Soka visit

Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein, Academy of St Martin in the Fields
The OC Register

Review: Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan perform with the popular orchestra.

By Timothy Mangan

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a nearly annual visitor to Orange County, showed up once again Sunday afternoon – this time, for the first time, at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. The flexibly sized ensemble arrived with 26 players, no conductor, and two young and notable soloists. The musical slate was interesting, if not particularly daring.

Though this orchestra sometimes performs with a conductor, it was founded, in 1958, as an ensemble-without-conductor and continues to perform in this manner often. Concertmaster Andrew Haveron was the ostensible leader, but he didn't have to do much with this tight-knit group, and others contributed visual cues, now and then, to ensemble cohesion as well. The Academy gels like a large string quartet.

But there can be a downside to performing without a conductor. A conductor serves as a center of gravity in a performance, coaxing, urging, distilling and personifying an interpretation, his own. A group of musicians without a conductor merely agrees upon an interpretation; the result can be faceless, or underjuiced.

This wasn't much of a problem for most of the program Sunday, but one missed a central unifying figure in the closing work, Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony. It was a polished reading, as usual with this orchestra, but it was also on the polite side. This is one of the composer's "Sturm und Drang" symphonies, filled with driving rhythms, blunt contrasts and angst. It ends with the players leaving the stage one by one as their parts finish, in what is perhaps classical music's only composed labor dispute. (Prince Esterhazy was keeping Haydn's orchestra for an extended period at his summer estate that year; the musicians wanted to go back to Vienna.)

At any rate, the Academy's performance was not without expression, it was just a little too well-behaved, fleet rather than ominous, sleek rather than rugged and gritty. The ending was pulled off nicely, though, to the delight of the audience.

The absence of a conductor proved no problem in the opening work, Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge." This playful and moody piece takes its concise theme through a variety of styles – including Italian aria, Viennese waltz, moto perpetuo and funeral march – and the Academy went to town with it, not only probing its dark and pungent emotional cues but vaulting spiritedly over its virtuoso hurdles.

Alisa Weilerstein, in her second Orange County appearance this season, joined the group for Haydn's early Cello Concerto in C. Her big, luxurious and burnished sound might not seem the perfect match for this often dainty, rococo concerto, but she kept her expressiveness nimble and her attacks pointed. The music stayed on its toes. In the slow movement, she nudged the melody gently, and in the finale she charged impressively through the whiz-bang.

Pianist Inon Barnatan turned in the most enjoyable performance of the afternoon, though, in Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in D minor. The Israeli-born musician, known for championing new music, threw himself into the work with compelling ebullience, like a jazz musician jamming with friends. He made no attempt to suppress or articulate the piano in imitation of a harpsichord, or at baroque prettifications. His playing was firm, smooth and headlong, the rhythm lively and athletic. In the outer movements, his inflections were playful, spontaneous sounding, and he knew when to lighten up or press the music forward. The slow movement had a reserved melancholy.

It was a confident and intelligent performance. Inon Barnatan – remember the name.