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MUSIC REVIEW : Parkening Joins the Academy at Ambassador : The performers, whose schedule includes a Costa Mesa engagement, show that they can play with thrilling unanimity.


PASADENA — Virtuosity and affection almost overcame the aesthetic inertia of overly familiar repertory when the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and guitarist Christopher Parkening returned to Ambassador Auditorium on Thursday in the first of three local visits.

This was the string band version of the Academy, led by Iona Brown from the concertmaster's chair. The musical equivalent of heavy industry, the prolific and peripatetic British organization coincidentally had just received the Queen's Award for Export Achievement.

Like too many other musical exporters this season, they seem to have sensed a strong market here for Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet. Already unthinkingly overexposed on the quartet circuit, it is no longer even new in Mahler's respectful--but inflationary and unnecessary--arrangement for string orchestra.

The performance Brown coaxed from her group could sound dull and unfocused in the quieter moments. But given the chance for leaping exuberance or throbbing passion--of which there are many--the Academy could also play with thrilling unanimity of attack and burnished depths of tone.

Though no novelty, Britten's wondrously imaginative and witty "Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge" hardly fall into the same category of redundancy. The Academy playing proved deft, with poised and pertinent solo work, the misintonation of Brown's own scampering solo in the Bouree notwithstanding.

Parkening has brought music that he will be recording with the Academy next month on this tour. Thursday he offered two popular Vivaldi Concertos, as adapted by Patrick Russ.

The guitarist played with a confidence and flair often missing from his work in past seasons. He was prone to exaggerated, line-busting accents, but revealed a nice feeling for expressive embellishment in the slow movements and a vivacious sense of rhythmic point.

Brown and Company accommodated his skittish tempos handily and provided a supportive dynamic context, with local stalwart Patricia Mabee recruited for almost inaudible harpsichord continuo work. In encore, Parkening offered a peppery account of Sanz's "Canarios" setting.

The performers, who also were scheduled to play Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, return to Ambassador tonight with a different program.

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