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Pauline Lerner

In Praise of Strings

March 3, 2009 at 1:05 AM

I recently heard a wonderful concert that taught me about the variety of music that a chamber orchestra can play beautifully.

The chamber orchestra was the famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, founded by Neville Marriner. I am familiar with a few of their recordings -- Bach, other Baroque, and Mozart -- and I like them very much. The instrumentation of this chamber orchestra varies, depending partly on how historically accurate the director wants to be. In this concert, the instrumentation was rather unusual: There were only string instruments.

Julia Fischer was the director and violin soloist in this concert. She did not conduct, but she signaled the players occasionally with her sweeping body movements. I had decided to attend this concert mainly because I wanted to hear her play two of the Bach violin concertos. She played the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1042) well, and she played the Concerto for Violin in E major (BWV 1042) brilliantly. She brought out a lot of emotion in the latter concerto, unlike some soloists who hold back because the concerto is Baroque. I felt carried away by the intensity of her moods, and I had to be careful not to do "air bowing," especially in the strongly rhythmic sections.

There were two very different twentieth century pieces on the program: Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10" and William Walton's "Sonata for Strings."

Benjamin Britten started composing in early childhood. When Britten was only ten years old, composer Frank Bridge discovered and mentored him. When he was 24, he was offered a commission to compose something new within one month for performance at the Salzburg Festival. He accepted the offer and composed "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10" within his deadline. The performance I heard covered a range of moods in a subtle, rather than dramatic, style.

William Walton's "Sonata for Strings." was altogether different. William Walton made his name as a composer of film music, including music for Olivier's films of Shakespeare's plays. Walton wrote only one string quartet, and about 25 years later, Neville Marriner suggested that he rework it as a piece for a string orchestra. In the resulting piece, "Sonata for Strings," I could hear elements of both string quartet music and dramatic film music. At times, the music sounded very much like a string quartet, with "conversations" among the instruments, but each instrument's voice was multiplied several times by the musicians in the chamber orchestra. Similar effects can be made in recording studios with overdubbing. At other times, the music was a dramatic and changing array of emotions. It was music that gripped me and carried me along by its force.

String instruments are wonderful. Their combinations, styles of playing, and emotional power are awesome.

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