Dallas — For some of us, when a group such as the Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields comes to town, you go. The same goes for a touring group comprising members of that deservedly legendary ensemble: When they show up, you show up—even if they’ve programmed something that is downright weird.
On Monday, Caruth Auditorium saw the inaugural concert of the Dallas Chamber Music Society's 71st season, a concert that featured that very group: the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble—violinists Tomo Keller (actually a guest artist and leader) and Harvey de Souza, violist Robert Smissen, cellist Stephen Orton, double bassist Lynda Houghton, as well as Stephen Stirling on French horn, Lawrence O’Donnell on bassoon, and Timothy Orpen on clarinet. Touring this group of instruments is unusual, because it limits the options for instrumental subsets on the program—you can't program a conventional wind quintet, because you don't have a flute or oboe. You can program a string quartet or quintet, but you really need something else for those wind instruments to do. If you are committed to touring Schubert's Octet, however—which undoubtedly was the reason for touring this particular collection of instruments—you should be able to find something.
And find something they did: Franz Hasenӧhrl's arrangement of Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, scored for a quintet consisting of the three available winds, a violin and a double bass. It's a highly unusual little collection of instruments, and they play a highly unusual—and questionable!—little piece.
Let's be honest: People who know Strauss' original are not going to like this arrangement, unless they don't like the original, and then they might like the arrangement out of spite. But what about people who don't know the original quite so well? Aren't they allowed to like it? Those who prefer the original had certainly better admit that, apart from one clinker in the final chord, Monday's performance was probably flawless, and it's simply amazing that music written for Strauss' massive orchestra can sound so similar to the original when pared down to a mere five players. Plus, the original takes about 15 minutes, while Hasenӧhrl's arrangement clocks in at half that. And it's programmed right before intermission. If you like the piece, great, and if you don't like it, you don't suffer long. Everybody wins. Or at least we can call it a draw.
Works like the Mozart Divertimento in D, K. 136, the concert's opening work, can pose a different kind of challenge. Earliest Mozart, one-digit-age Mozart, is fascinating, even if it doesn’t really reward scrutiny. Teenage Mozart—like this Divertimento—just makes some people wish for later Mozart. Of course, this thinking goes on only before the first downbeat. Once these musicians from the Academy's orchestra start playing it, you forget about what you had been wishing for, and you join the ensemble, or at least you wish you could. You certainly join their evident enjoyment of this all-too-brief work whose occasional predictability doesn't stand in the way of its being a total delight.
The second half of the concert, featuring the Schubert Octet in F major, D 803, poses a challenge yet further. Schubert in four movements can sometimes be…well, taxing. What will he do with six? Again, this thinking goes on before the piece starts. Once these eight master musicians begin playing—and remember, this work's odd instrumentation means we'll probably never again hear a live performance of it, and certainly never by musicians of this caliber—you start wishing for eight movements. You start hearing Schubert's Trout Quintet in the variations, his C major Quintet in the finale, and more than anything else, you start wishing that these players would just keep going. You start hearing Smissen demonstrate what a viola really sounds like, should sound like, and you start hearing Houghton prove that a double bass doesn't need any help from other bass instruments, thank you, it can sound gorgeous all by itself.
If the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields sends a touring group around again, let's all hope the Dallas Chamber Music Society brings them to Caruth Auditorium, and let's all go hear them. They can even play something by Hasenӧhrl again, if they want to.