Academy of St. Martin in the Fields wows in Ventura debut

Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein, Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Ventura County Star

British chamber ensemble’s Monday concert was spirited, intense

By Rita Moran

The Ventura Music Festival burnished its already well-respected image Monday night with the presentation of the world-famous chamber group Academy of St. Martin in the Fields for an exhilarating concert in Ventura High School’s auditorium. The festival, which will run May 3-11 at various Ventura performance spaces, has been heralding the arrival of its annual event by bringing outstanding musicians of diverse persuasions to town. Tito Puente Jr. was first in February and this week it was the Academy.

Along with Monday’s buoyant ensemble of accomplished and acutely team-sensitive players came two remarkable guest soloists, both in their early 30s and already lauded with multiple major honors. American cellist Alisa Weilerstein joined the players in Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major and Tel-Aviv-born pianist Inon Barnatan sailed his way through Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor.

In the well-established manner of the Academy, founded in 1958 by leading London musicians, each soloist was conductor for the work featured. For the other elements of the program, Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45 in F-sharp minor), the orchestra, as is its tradition, conducted itself, through cues by leading players and of course familiarity with the works and fellow musicians. Sir Neville Marriner was founding director of the ensemble and violinist Joshua Bell became its musical director in 2011.

Weilerstein breezed onto the stage in a sleek purple gown and led the Academy players in an intense and spirited romp through Haydn’s concerto, one lost for centuries among his papers but revived in 1961 by a Czech musicologist. Its demands for dexterity and fluidity were embraced by Weilerstein, as she challenged the musicians to join her in a daringly swift performance of the distinctive work from Haydn’s early period. While she brought forth a moving Adagio section, Weilerstein was at her most impressive in the daunting Allegro Molto in breathtakingly beautiful teamwork while evoking the magic of what nimble fingers and wide-ranging musicality can achieve.

Barnatan was equally impeccable in concept and skill, all the while making Bach’s work seem like incomparable fun to play. His feet danced across the pedals, and the floor, as he rollicked through the thickest wickets of pianistic challenges. If ever there was a picture-perfect presentation of joy in performance, Barnatan achieved it.

The audience, quite naturally, leapt to their feet at the conclusion of each featured soloist’s work, but was also swept away by the buoyant musical, and communicative, skills of the distinguished Academy, whose namesake church in London still welcomes visitors for diverse musical performances.

While the soloists provided memorable highlights, the Academy ensemble, in various configurations, persuasively limned the variegated moods and colors of Britten’s homage to Bridge, with its multiple musical styles depicting Bridge’s many-faceted personality, and brought out the casually amusing “trick” of the “Farewell” Symphony, which Haydn had puckishly written so that the performers gradually walk offstage until only two are left to complete the final phrase.

Obviously anticipating the evening’s potential for riveting performances, Music Festival artistic director Nuvi Mehta assured the assembled audience in preconcert comments, “It’s really you who bring this music to Ventura, not we.”