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PERFORMING ARTS

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-- Pamela Murray Winters

St. Martin in the Fields

Few classical-music recording collections go without at least a couple of discs by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the British chamber orchestra forever linked with its founder and longtime leader, Sir Neville Marriner.

Given the group's popularity, it was no surprise that the Washington Performing Arts Society sold out the Music Center at Strathmore for the ensemble's Sunday evening performance, which featured superstar Israeli violinist Gil Shaham as soloist and guest director. This pairing sent sparks flying as the players attacked each score with skill and abandon, creating a beautiful sound that sacrificed none of the music's shape and unity.

The go-for-broke approach went to the guts of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219. There was all the formal elegance and crystalline detail that one expects in the composer's music, but the musicians brought out its emotional underpinnings. Shaham's pure and beaming tone was out in full glory, especially in the cadenzas.

The forthright yet warm sound also worked well in two Russian string essays that flanked the Mozart. The ensemble gave Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," Op. 70, a luminous reading with transparent textures and well-shaped melodies. The first movement was as surging as the second movement adagio was tender, while the third movement saw gorgeously wrought solos before launching into the pulsing finale. Shaham sat in the first chair, giving direction to the interpretation and working felicitously with the other musicians like an experienced concertmaster.

The ensemble played it cooler in the concert opener, Anton Arensky's Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a. Putting too much into this relatively simple if engaging work might have had a distorting effect, and the reading by turns brought out the vigorous, sweetly lyrical and elegiac character. Constantly there, too, was the glowing ensemble work that defines the academy's pleasingly familiar style.

-- Daniel Ginsberg


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