Academy of St Martin in the Field concert reviews Sydney


5 stars

It was an unusually eventful visit to the Sydney Opera House last night, 9 October. The Concert Hall stage featured Academy of St Martin in the Fields, one of the world’s top chamber orchestras visiting from the UK. They were performing the final of three Sydney concerts in celebration of the 50th Birthday Festival for the Opera House. Fresh from Melbourne, they will continue their Australian tour now to Brisbane on 11-12 October.

Why was the night eventful? Outside the Opera House was a large and loud political rally regarding the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine. Although no protestors were arrested in the forecourt, they were accompanied by 100 police complete with horses and dogs. The activity caused theatre security, staff and patrons to all feel a little on edge but luckily, the performers would have arrived earlier in the afternoon and were oblivious to the goings on outside. In the end, no harm was done and 90% of the rally crowd had disbursed by the time we were leaving the theatre shortly before 9pm. There were just a few dressed in national colours waving flags, happily having their photos taken along the shoreline in front of the Harbour Bridge.

It’s been 6 years since we’ve seen Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) here in Australia. Their good intentions to return sooner were interrupted by the lockdowns and other limitations so, it was wonderful to see them again. Impeccably presented with a wonderful camaraderie amongst the members, the responsibility of following a seated Musical Director is spread amongst all. This creates a mutual understanding and collective conscious choice to draw together. The unity feels different to an orchestra that can sit back and rely on a standing conductor. ASMF are a shining example of how to lead and be lead, all at the same time.

Joshua Bell violinist musical director of Academy of St Martin in the Field
Musical Director Joshua Bell takes the lead in Sydney Opera House October 2023. Photo Jay Patel

Their Musical Director for the past 12 years has been the phenomenal violinist Joshua Bell, originally from Indiana USA. He expresses himself physically as well as musically which is helpful in leading the orchestra whilst playing. Sitting slightly higher than the others on a piano stool he stretches his flexible back, using head, shoulders and elbows to keep tempo, occasionally stopping mid phrase to cue the woodwind or brass with his vintage François Tourte bow from the 1700s. (The violin is a $1million+ Huberman Stradivarius from 1713.)

The full impact of his genius was experienced when he stood to play for the second piece in the program, Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, a welcome favourite. Bell is free in moving, stretching and swaying but not for dramatic effect. The movements are natural extensions his violin voice which is clear, articulate and very masculine.

The whole program was a complete set of very well known and much loved pieces from Mozart, Bach, Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn. Perfectly chosen, these pieces would be agreeable to the whole audience and easily seduce any newcomers to classical music.

Opening the program was the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, a fun and lively piece that had the musicians swapping smiles with each other. Not just swapping smiles but also a precisely synchronised swap of chairs as Bell moved to centre stage in front of a harpsichord for Bach’s Violin Concerto. Every detail of staging has been carefully thought through demonstrating a great example to local ensembles.

The musicians were clearly enjoying the Concerto, often stopping to smile at Bell’s immaculate phrasing. In the Andante movement, Bell appeared to create completely different tones from the same note played during a single phrase, such is his skill in interpretation. The final Andante Assai was a delightful romp that scooped up the audience and carried it along with skirts flying and the wind blowing any neat hairdo to smithereens.  The crowd adored it and gave a roar of approval with long applause.

To close the first half of the concert, we leapt forward 100 years to Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Another jaw dropping performance from Bell showing a completely different style of playing suited to the era of the music. The performance as a whole could not be faulted. It was sublime.

A small point of contention was the souvenir program. Sydney Opera House patrons are well used to programs being given for free at most performances. It is understandable that, for an overseas act, the program would be a paid item. The presentation was nice but audience members were disappointed to discover, after they paid $10, there was little content worth the money. Other than a brief description of the music and a bio for Bell and the Orchestra, there really wasn’t anything else in there other than the musician’s names, staff credits, theatre donors and partners. Additional content could have padded the booklet out such as how the music was curated, how the orchestra coped through lockdown, what other projects they are doing in the world, their latest album, perhaps an interview with Bell. Even more photos would have made the program worth buying and keeping.

A Sound Finale

Full house concert and theatre reviews Sydney Opera House
An appreciative audience for Academy of St Martin in the Field at Sydney Opera House. Photo Jay Patel.

Second half of the concert was dedicated to Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony no. 4, another crowd favourite. With lush orchestration and plenty of work for horns and woodwind, this was a magnificent way to round off the program. The sound was picture perfect (or “Take 1” recording perfect might be a better way to describe it). At the close, the audience demanded 3 curtain calls from Bell with roars and stamping feet. The orchestra appropriately chose for their encore the Percy Grainger arrangement of “Danny Boy”. It was a sentimental and sweet way to finish the Sydney leg of their tour.

We eagerly look forward to their return to Sydney – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Explore the next classical music concerts and shows coming up at Sydney Opera House

More about Academy of St Martin in the Field:

The orchestra’s version of Danny Boy


MOZART, A. – Overture from The Marriage of Figaro

BACH, J.S. – Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041

SAINT-SAËNS, C. – Introduction and rondo Capriccioso

MENDELSSOHN, Fe. – Symphony No. 4 Op. 90