Members of the prestigious, London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. Photo by Roland Beck

Members of the prestigious, London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber ensemble took the stage in front of a sold-out Portland audience Tuesday to present an evening of vintage classical music composed or arranged for extended groupings of violinists, violists and cellists.

Portland Ovations presented the concert at Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine campus.

Shuffling the printed program just a bit, a sextet (two each of violins, violas and cellos) began with a brief but, as always, engaging piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. His “Ricercar a 6, from The Musical Offering” established a warm understanding of how, despite its compositional rigor, Bach’s music continues to transcend its era with emotive grace. The ease of musical communication in this performance established the tone for an evening of music not so much challenging as comfortably inviting.

Next up was the “String Sextet B-flat Major Op. 18” by Johannes Brahms. Densely lyrical, the piece, in the ensemble’s hands, established an unhurried sense of purpose over time. Despite awkwardly having to be halted, mid-movement, for the retuning of a cello, the opening gathered a shimmering stream of musical ideas that prompted uncharacteristic applause at the end of the movement.

The excitable enthusiasm of the last movement of the Brahms work capped a performance that seemed to break free of most of the heaviness oftentimes associated with the composer. The ensemble’s obvious familiarity with the piece conveyed a sort of deceptively easygoing attitude throughout.

After intermission, a performance of the “Chacony for Strings in G minor” by Henry Purcell introduced two additional violinists to the stage. The austere intonations of early music were preserved in this version, arranged by Benjamin Britten. More of the thoughtful ambiance established through this piece would have been welcome but the concert was quickly onto the “Octet in E-flat, Op. 20” by Felix Mendelssohn.

Composed when Mendelssohn was 16, the Octet is full of youthful enthusiasm and seems to bridge 18th- and 19th-century sensibilities, perhaps with the composer, along the way, setting some parameters for the lighter side of the Romantic era in music to come. In any event, the Academy octet brought out both the piece’s remarkably refined lyricism and joyful spirit for a rousing close to the program performance.

Ensemble members Tomo Keller, Harvey De Souza, Jennifer Godson, Martin Burgess, Robert Smissen, Fiona Bonds, Caroline Dale and Will Schofield took bows and left before a lengthy standing ovation brought them back for a lovely encore featuring a short elegiac piece by Edvard Grieg that pulled the evening movingly back toward the world in which we live.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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