The Grand Tour: Academic Excellence

St. Martin-in-the-Fields

The first of a series of dispatches (guaranteed not to be in chronological order) from my Grand European Tour.

One of the many things I’d always hoped to do before going on to sing bass in the Choir Invisible was to hear the famed chamber ensemble The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields perform in the Trafalgar Square church where they began. I got my wish yesterday as the Academy, under the direction of Leader Stephanie Gonley (that’s the concertmaster, to us Yanks) entertained a capacity crowd with a celebratory program of works spanning over 400 years.

The concert opened with Vaughan-Williams’s lush “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”. The piece is scored for two string orchestras and solo string quartet. With a nod to the multiple chorus techniques of the Renaissance (with their reliance on spatial separation), the second orchestra is usually placed at some remove from the first. The Academy put them up in the back of the choir stalls, making it close to impossible to locate them sonically from our seats in the pews. They sounded as though they were on some other plan of existence—a nice touch, given the work’s sacred origins. The sound of the Academy strings was as splendid as one would expect from their decades of recordings.

Those strings were also well displayed in a suite from Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” (as arranged by early music expert Clifford Bartlett) and the “Capriol Suite” by Peter Warlock (real name Philip Haseltine), based on some hit tunes from “Orchesographie” by Thoinot Arbeau (real name: Jehan Tabourot; it’s a trend). Warlock’s arrangements demanded (and got) virtuoso playing, garnering spontaneous applause from the audience after the fiery “Bransles”. There was also some fine playing from oboists Ian Hardwick and Rachel Ingleton in the popular “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Handel’s “Solomon”.

After interval drinks in the church crypt (now converted into a café and bar; enjoy your wine seated on the tombs of the long departed), the evening closed with Elgar’s brief “Elegy” and a rousing rendition of Handel’s first “Water Music” suite. There were a few intonation problems with the horns, but on the whole the Academy did this glorified background music up proud.

A note or two on the church itself is in order. It has been be beautifully preserved, with cream walls and ceiling and gold accents. Acoustics are surprisingly good—live but not too much echo. Seating is on the pews, so sight lines are not very good (a minor drawback, I think) and the £1 seat cushion rental is money sell spent. Even if you don’t catch a concert there, a tour of the church itself is worthwhile, and you can always feed the pigeons in the square afterwards.


  • Martha

    That church is a style referred to as a “georgian preaching box.” It, like our parish church when we lived in London (Holy Trinity, Clapham), was built at a time when the preacher was the main attraction. The decoration is mcuh more reserved than in older (or later) churches, and the acoustics were designed so that the sermon would be heard. Just a little factoid to add to your collection.