Saturday 24 February 2018

Classic talk: The musical excellence of the master Marriner

Neville Marriner: director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Neville Marriner: director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

George Hamilton

Neville Marriner is a name familiar to music-lovers. He's famous across the globe for directing the orchestra he set up - the Academy of St Martin in the Fields - for over 50 years, the most prolific partnership in recording history.

Back in the 1970s, an American magazine, Stereo Review, published a cartoon. A man was seated in an armchair, listening to the radio. By his side, on a perch, was a parrot. From the radio came the words, "Played now by the orchestra of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields". The parrot responded instantly: "Neville Marriner conducting".

The man himself would recall a real-life broadcast he heard on a trip to Canada. "That was the Academy of you-know-where," said the presenter, "conducted by you-know-who."

Marriner, who passed away six months ago, was born in the city of Lincoln in the East Midlands of England on this day in 1924. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London and he studied in Paris as well.

After a year teaching the fiddle to the sons of the rich and famous at Eton, he joined a professional string quartet, then played in a variety of ensembles before taking the chair as principal second violin at the London Symphony Orchestra.

But life at the whim of directors who could be dictatorial wasn't altogether appealing, so he and a group of like-minded players - "refugees from conductors" as he referred to them - would gather in his flat to make music for their own pleasure.

One of them, John Churchill, was in charge of the music at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the church on the corner of Trafalgar Square (which hasn't actually been in the fields that once separated the cities of London and Westminster for well over 300 years).

It was through him that they were invited to give a series of concerts in the crypt. Another of their number came up with "Academy" as a name, and by adding the venue for their first performances, the familiar brand was born.

At first, it was early music they played, and they built up a reputation for a clarity of sound and a brightness of tempo that brought the melodies alive.

As primus inter pares, a first-among-equals director - they had come together, after all, to get away from autocratic conductors - it was Marriner who had the vision to drive them forward.

Without a subsidy of any kind, they had to publicise themselves. Putting their sound on disc was a sure-fire way to promote the band. Successful releases on smaller labels brought them into the mainstream. They've since recorded with Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI, as well as Philips and Sony.

Along the way, they were the chosen orchestra to provide the soundtrack for the 1985 Oscar-winning film Amadeus about the life and times of Mozart. The publicity material featured pictures of the composer and Marriner. "Only two people were qualified to conduct the score," the caption read. "One was unavailable."

The growing demand for early music to be performed on period instruments forced the Academy to broaden its repertoire to include the music of the 19th Century which, in turn, meant they had to become a bigger orchestra. But like everything else, they took it in their stride.

Their current director is the American virtuoso Joshua Bell, who succeeded Marriner in 2011. In keeping with the orchestra's tradition, he was chosen by the musicians themselves.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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