Formed in 1958 by Neville Marriner, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields began as a conductorless string ensemble that occupied a middle ground between standard-size orchestras and period-instrument groups. ASMF went on to be hugely successful under Marriner’s direction, and it remains so under current music director Joshua Bell, who took over in 2011. Sunday’s concert, which represented the ensemble’s 13th Celebrity Series appearance, brought a sunny, impeccably delivered program to match an unexpectedly sunny March afternoon: Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” Overture, the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Florence Price’s “Adoration,” and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, the “Italian.”
ASMF has added winds and brass in the course of expanding its repertoire, but Sunday’s lineup remained compact, with just 24 strings. Bell, when he wasn’t soloing, led from a slightly raised concertmaster’s stool, his vigorous head and body movements giving cues to the orchestra. They opened with the Rossini, which, even if you’ve never seen “The Barber of Seville,” you might well recognize from classical radio, TV ads, and of course, the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Rabbit of Seville.” ASMF’s pure strings, sumptuous winds, crisp contrasts, and acute rhythms made it easy to envision the opera’s scenario, from Count Almaviva’s initial serenade to the subterfuges and disguises he and Figaro dream up to his final successful wooing of Rosina. It scarcely mattered that Rossini actually recycled the overture from two of his earlier operas.
Dvořák wrote his concerto in 1879 for Joseph Joachim, but the great Hungarian violinist never played it, and the piece didn’t premiere until 1883. Joachim might have been disconcerted by the structure of the A-minor Allegro, which forgoes development, recapitulation, and coda. But it’s hard to imagine how he could have resisted the luscious F-major Adagio, which draws on the same Russian folk theme used by Beethoven in his second “Razumovsky” string quartet and Mussorgsky in the Coronation Scene of “Boris Godunov.” Or the lively A-major finale, which dances to the cross-rhythms of the Czech furiant and dumka.
Bell certainly threw himself into the piece. He was almost too intense at times, and his instrument didn’t always register against Dvořák’s sometimes problematic orchestration. But as the opening turmoil gave way to a bucolic C-major section and then an orchestral tutti that surged with Bohemian pride, you could hear an interpretation building. His Adagio — by turns a lullaby, a lament, a prayer, a march, and yet another noble Bohemian parade — was so moving that the audience broke into applause. His finale turned into a dance party with a hint of an improbable sleigh ride. The plaintive dumka middle section, with its double stops, offered just a moment of sober reflection before the high-spirited festival recommenced.
After intermission came the salute to a New England Conservatory graduate. Price, who was born in 1887, majored in both piano and organ at NEC. In 1933, she became the first Black woman to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra programmed her Symphony in E minor. She wrote “Adoration” in 1951, just two years before her death; originally for organ, it has been transcribed for everything from clarinet to horn quintet. Bell gloried in the slow, soaring, bluesy melody against a veiled backdrop of strings. Lasting just 3½ minutes, it was over way too soon.
The ASMF’s “Italian” Symphony conjured the overture and incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Bell gave us a big opening Allegro, heavy on brass and timpani, with a rousing first subject, as if Oberon and Titania were quarreling, and a Puckish second; the movement elicited yet another outburst of applause. The D-minor Andante con moto went at a disquieting clip, a reminder of mortality; only the second subject brought a break in the clouds. The Con moto moderato suggested an amorous serenade; the softly whooping horns in the trio and the end suggested wedding ceremonies. And the Saltarello finale became an explosion of fairy footwork with its share of thunder and lightning to frighten mere mortals. Just one more exemplary performance from an orchestra that has been exemplary from the start.
ACADEMY OF ST MARTIN IN THE FIELDS
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, March 6.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.