For its next event, the Community Arts Music Association (CAMA) is bringing to town the famed chamber orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with director and leader Joshua Bell at the helm. The ensemble will play a concert at 8 p.m. Friday at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. in Santa Barbara.
The program consists of four works: Johann Sebastian Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E-Major, BWV 1042; Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C-Major, Opus 21 (1800); Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A-Minor, Opus 28 (1863); and Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D-Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden", arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler.
Bell, who — as we know well — was a virtuoso soloist of international glory before he took on the leadership of the academy, will solo in the Bach and the Saint-Saëns.
There isn't much need to introduce the Bach, one of the gems of 18th century literature. It is not known, for sure, when he wrote it. He rewrote it as a harpsichord concerto in D-Major, published in 1737-39, but as to the date of the original composition, speculation has little to work on. It is not a concerto in the Romantic, post-Paganini sense — ego contra omnes — but a perfect illustration of why the English orchestras call their concert-master "leader." The solo violin leads the way.
One of my recordings of the Beethoven is by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, when they were led by Sir Neville Marriner. There is no more involving and exciting performance of the work this side of Arturo Toscanini. I do not doubt that Maestro Bell will equal, probably in a different direction, his predecessor's performance.
Saint-Saëns's piece was composed for the legendary Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who premiered the work to great applause, in Paris on April 4, 1867. It has been one of the composer's most popular works ever since. The thing about Saint-Saëns that is most distinctive is his perfect balance — never too much, never too little.
One wing of Romanticism admires im balance, worships the out of control. Saint-Saëns abhorred indiscipline, and he loathed music that turned people into robots or slaves. Almost the only thing that really made him angry was somebody wasting his time. The balance is what makes it possible to still listen to Saint-Saëns without embarrassment, with pleasure. The Introduction and Rondo balances fiendishly challenging technical feats with airs of sweet, simple melancholy.
Saint-Saëns fascinates me. Born a mere two years after Johannes Brahms, he lived long enough to catch a chill and die while flying to Morocco. He spearheaded the introduction of Richard Wagner's music into France, and later wrote lacerating criticisms of Wagner and his music (he was a brilliant writer, with a very sharp tongue, and had a polymath's gift for learning).
It was, I'm sure, his closely-reasoned, though passionate, critiques of Wagner that got his music barred from the Third Reich, rather than the groundless rumors about his alleged Jewish ancestors. I'm not saying that the Nazis weren't dumb enough to believe the rumors — they were that dumb, and crazy besides — but I still say that Hitler's devotion to Wagner would have trumped even a racial court's finding of pure Aryan forebears for Saint-Saëns.
The Death and the Maiden is another work that speaks for itself. It was, I must say, typical of Mahler to take up this quartet for transcription. When I consider this strange conjunction of composers, irreverence rears its parti-colored head, and I think of the scene in Annie Hall when Annie and Alvie are breaking up. They are sorting through their possessions and Annie tells Alvie: "All the books with Death in the title are yours." Alma could have made the same observation to Gustav. Death and the Maiden was just the kind of title to get his interest. Once he looked into it, the music would have done the rest.
Single tickets to the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields concert are $38, $53, $73, $93 and $103, and they can be purchased by phone at 805.899.2222, or online by clicking here.