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St. Martin Strings' Understated Skills

February 12, 1996|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES MUSIC WRITER

COSTA MESA — Three musical bodies tour these United States under the generic name Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The mid-sized ensemble, and the most familiar of the three, the 19-member string orchestra, returned here Saturday night.

Under its longtime leader, violinist Kenneth Sillito, the string band played a Handel/Bach/Stravinsky/Dvorak program skillfully before a large audience in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Despite instrumental neatness and cool execution, the overall performance fell short of consistent excellence.

As well as these players perform, they seldom achieve a sense of completeness and cohesion. More often than not, they find a certain level of low energy and remain there, just below genuine brilliance. And Sillito, who conducts from the concertmaster's chair, seems never to work toward raising that level.

Strong ensemble and high musical accomplishment give the ensemble the patina of a rich-sounding string choir; its wide dynamic range extends the group's expressive possibilities. But boldness, individuality and conviction seldom inform these performances.

Best on Saturday: the closing work, Dvorak's lovable Serenade in E, Opus 22. Many beauteous moments materialized through this clean run-through; one missed only a probing personality to guide the orchestra through the depths and emotional contrasts in the piece.

A similar lack of interpretive facets marked the mellow reading of Stravinsky's Concerto in D (1946), which needed more pungency and lushness and measurably less timidity.

Soloists in J.S. Bach's own transcription, for three violins, of a concerto for three harpsichords, were Sillito, Malcolm Latchem and Patricia Calnan. Here, the absence of a strong podium force to keep the performance on track and moving became particularly noticeable.

The evening began with Handel's Concerto Grosso in A, Opus 6, No. 11.

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