Chamberfest: St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble shines light on rarely played gems

Tomo Keller, left, leads the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Ensemble.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble is an extension of the famous chamber orchestra founded in 1958 and led, for more than 50 years by Sir Neville Marriner, who passed away in 2016 at 92. Today the American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell is the music director. The Ensemble, featuring eight musicians drawn from the orchestra, plays larger chamber music works from quintets to octets. It is led by the violinist Tomo Keller. On Oct. 2, Keller and his colleagues will perform in Dominion-Chalmers United Church. Before this rare treat, Keller answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Why was the Ensemble formed in 1967?

A. The orchestra wanted to play larger chamber works that are usually played by a fixed string quartet that invites two or three or four additional players. It was a natural extension for members of the orchestra to play these works together.

We are basically the principal players of the orchestra. There are four principal violins, two principal violas, two principal celli and two woodwinds. The makeup depends on the repertoire. We are actually the core of the orchestra. That is what is great about it. We know each other very well from playing together. Coming together as six or eight people, you can build on what you do in the orchestra. At the same time, when you play in the orchestra you build upon what you do in chamber music.

Q. How often does the Ensemble tour?

A. As you know, we have other commitments, so we build our tours around them. Typically we have one big tour every fall in North America. This year we are touring with winds. Next year we will tour with eight string players. During the rest of the year, we play concerts and festivals and we usually do a small tour in Europe and an occasional concert in London.

This year, our tour is starting in Ottawa. In fact it will be great to spend the first week in Canada. I have never been to Ottawa and I am looking forward to playing there. Then we head to Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie, Detroit, New Orleans, California, Boston, North Carolina, Virginia and we finish at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Q. Can you talk about the music you play?

A. We are not a string quartet, nor are we a piano trio. We play sextets and octets, pieces that are usually not played by a set chamber group. That flexibility is, I think, the strength of our group. The music is rare in a concert situation just because of the set up of the instrumentation. I don’t know how often (for example) the Schubert Octet is played,  but I would guess that most of the time it is played in a summer festival when musicians gather for a week or a month and they play different repertoire which can be wonderful. You do it once and you play with people you wouldn’t play with normally. For us, however, the Schubert Octet is a core piece.

We do also play new contemporary work from time to time. For example, we have a string octet coming from Sally Beamish, who is the composer in residence at the Academy. My hope is that her piece will be finished by end of year because we want to have it for next year’s tour.

Programming is worked out between the promoters, their agents and us. Generally we are working a few years ahead. Sometimes we will try new things and we see that a piece will work and we will play it again.

Q. Speaking of that, can you talk about your program in Ottawa?

A. Our Ottawa concert starts with the Nielsen (Serenato in vano, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass). It is an unusual configuration. It is kind of a little musical joke this piece. In vano means in vain. It’s a short fun piece meant with a twinkle in one’s eye.

The Francaix Octet (for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and bass) has the same instrumentation as the Schubert. In fact it is dedicated to the memory of Schubert. It is a short piece, given that it has four movements. In my opinion it’s wonderful. It has it’s own sound world. It is really unique. It is funny and has jazz and blues in it. The piece was written in 1972 so it’s newer than you would think. Francaix lived until 1997, so for most of us this is contemporary music.

Then we do play the Schubert (Octet in F, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and bass Op. 166, D. 803) which is a universe in itself. It is his biggest, longest chamber work. It is an incredible masterpiece. It’s long, almost an hour. It has everything in it. It was commissioned by a clarinetist who had in mind the Beethoven Septet. Schubert added a second violin and that makes a huge difference in sound. It is richer and fuller. He takes some of his earlier songs and puts them in the piece. You will hear it. I have played it quite a bit and every time it feels new.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself?

A. I was never a full-time chamber musician in that I had a fixed chamber group, nor was I a full-time soloist. Both were occasional things, sometimes more, sometimes less. Now that I am with the Academy, it is different because I am a member of the Ensemble. I enjoy repertoire that I haven’t played before. I joined the Academy orchestra at the end of 2015. I had played with them on and off before. One reason that I was so happy about joining them is because the work we do is so varied. I don’t know many other organizations that have this variety.

Q. In your role as leader of the Ensemble are there other duties?

A. Since we are not a large symphony and we have a small organization, I do a lot of communication and interaction with the business side. I see my role as a communicator, trying to put in ideas on repertoire and other things. It’s a great honour to be able to do this.

Q. Did you know Sir Neville Marriner?

A. I met him first in the mid-90s. I was studying in Vienna at the time and was a guest with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I spent that summer in Salzburg at the music festival and we did one concert with Sir Neville. It struck me how uncomplicated he was. He just came. He didn’t do or say much but because of this the Vienna Symphony Orchestra played better than ever. It was one of my favourite concerts with that orchestra. I didn’t see him again until 2012. That was when I was the guest leader of the Academy orchestra for the first time and he was conducting.

I remembered him from Austria. It was instantly the same feeling. He was a very down to earth, honest musician and conductor whom I could relate to so well. He had come (to the Academy) from the London Symphony Orchestra where he was a second violin and in 2012 I was also member of the London Symphony. When he passed away Joshua Bell said (Sir Neville) would always be the soul and heart of the academy.

Q. Can you talk about Joshua Bell and his role leading the Academy?

A. The baton passed to Joshua Bell seven years ago. It’s not really the baton. Bell is sitting in the first seat. He leads from there. The two men knew each other for a long time before Bell joined the Academy. Bell’s first recording, for example, was conducted by Sir Neville.

When Bell started in 2011, Sir Neville was around. There was a transition that lasted for five years. Joshua is great. He does the whole program of a concert sitting as the lead violin. He will often play a concerto and then a symphony after intermission. The strength of the Academy orchestra is playing conductor-less. Joshua is now doing bigger repertoire, trying new things which are a great challenge and a great pleasure musically. He does have a relationship with Ensemble in the occasional concert … the next one will be at Wigmore Hall in November.

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.