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SMELL THE FUN

for The Brooklyn Paper
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When the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble kicks off its season on the Cantor Auditorium stage in the Brooklyn Museum of Art on Dec. 15, what else would be on the program but "A Holiday Potpourri" of baroque music by the likes of Handel, Corelli, Telemann, Pachelbel and Bach?

"It’s all great music," says violinist Krista Bennion Feeney, the ensemble’s director of chamber music, who set the program. "It’s quite a mix. Some of it is very familiar, like the Pachelbel ’Canon,’ which everybody knows, and the Bach ’Concerto for Two Violins [in D minor].’

"But many people don’t know the Telemann Concertos [for Oboe in D minor and for Flute, Oboe d’Amore and Viola d’Amore in E major], which are both gorgeous pieces," says Feeney. "And you really don’t get to hear the Handel Concerto Grosso [in G Major] either - it’s very festive, a very ’up’ piece - but the Corelli ’Christmas Concerto,’ of course, is well-known. We try to get a balance in the keys - some in major, some in minor - so it’s a festive and uplifting program."

The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble was founded in 1974, and was followed five years later by the formation of the renowned Orchestra of St. Luke’s, which plays an annual three-concert Carnegie Hall series along with many other programs and recordings. What distinguishes the ensemble is its make-up: 21 virtuoso musicians who are in demand all over the world for their musical prowess. Feeney acknowledges that such an abundance of talent is a good problem to have.

"We like to feature our players in the concertos that we program," she explains. "It’s quite special to hear a soloist play in the style of the group. Usually, a soloist who plays with an orchestra comes from a different world, so to speak. Here, we have a style we have in common, and when our soloists play within the group, it makes the performance very special and harmonious. Simply, we have such fantastic virtuosi in the group, we like to show them off."

Following its holiday concert - which, like all of its concerts, is repeated at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan the following Wednesday - the ensemble returns to the Brooklyn Museum for "Mendelssohn: The Boy Genius" on Feb. 23 and "A Schubert Sandwich" on April 6. Several of the Orchestra’s Carnegie programs this season are taken up by Mendelssohn, so Feeney believes the February concert should reflect that.

"Whenever possible, we like to make a mini-festival," Feeney says, "and since we’re doing an all-Mendelssohn orchestral concert that week [Feb. 27], we’ll do an all-Mendelssohn chamber concert also. The two string symphonies that we’re playing were written when he was 12 years old. Then we’ll play the octet in the second half, which shows how he matured musically from age 12 to 16."

Most experts agree that Mendelssohn peaked at an early age, as evidenced by the masterpieces he poured forth as a teenager.

"I picked those two string symphonies because the slow movements, especially, are very beautiful - the fourth’s slow movement almost sounds like Mahler, it’s so magical. And the fifth is a kind of song without words, a beautiful song in the first violins," says Feeney.

"I think we’re really well-suited to play these pieces because Mendelssohn modeled his symphonies on the works of masters like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven," she says. "They’re an interesting mixture of baroque and classical style with that Mendelssohnian spirit."

For the April 6 concert, "A Schubert Sandwich" should be taken literally - a newly discovered Haydn Divertimento will be preceded by a charming Schubert String Trio and followed, after intermission, by Schubert’s famously delightful "Trout" Quintet, which includes the orchestra’s new artistic director, Donald Runnicles, on piano.

Feeney is ecstatic about the Haydn Divertimento, a U.S. premiere.

"What a treat it will be to play a new Haydn quartet," she says. "The ’Divertimento’ is for violin, viola, cello and bass, with a completely independent bass part, freeing up the cello to be more melodic. It’s really a beautiful piece."

A former Brooklyn resident who lived in Cobble Hill in the late 1980s, Feeney still has warm feelings for the borough. "I always love going back to Brooklyn to play," she says. "It’s like going back home for me."

And the ensemble follows suit.

"We’ve played the museum for eight years now," she says. "It’s a very nice hall - we like it very much. I prefer the museum for our group [to the smaller Weill Recital Hall]. Weill is a fantastic hall, but for a group of our size, it sometimes sounds overpowering. I think people are better off hearing us in Brooklyn."

Who’s going to argue with that?

The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble performs "A Holiday Potpourri" Sunday, Dec. 15 at 2 pm in the Cantor Auditorium of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway. Tickets are $25 and $18 for students, seniors and museum members. A series pass - good for all three Museum concerts - is $50. For more information, call (212) 594-6100 or visit www.orchestraofstlukes.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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