Neville Marriner at 90
In the early 1960's, fresh and exciting live recordings of concerts of baroque music - Handel, Corelli and Vivaldi - with Sir Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields set standards. Early music had never been heard with as much pep until his chamber orchestra grew famous. Specializing in Baroque and the Vienna classics, the group drew its name from the place where the musicians gave their first concert, London's church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
By the 1970's, the English-born conductor was much in demand as principal conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart. Still at the podium, he recently told the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" daily, "If I stopped conducting, I'd die."
In that role, he sees himself as a technician in the service of the composer. His advice to young musicians: "You have to learn music from the ground up."
Living room beginnings
Starting out as a violinist, Neville Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music and played in the London Symphony Orchestra under maestros including Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan. He developed an avid interest in Baroque and Renaissance music, which most major symphony orchestras ignored in the 1950s or played with pathos.
"Even Mozart was performed much slower and much heavier, with enormous forces," Marriner later said. "Of course, the athleticism disappears completely, so does a lot the vitality."
Without intending to found an orchestra or perform publicly, Marriner regularly invited musician friends to his living room to play 17th and 18th century music - in an egalitarian spirit of respect for one another.
"We just played for the fun of it. Each of us shared responsibility, more than was possible in a normal orchestra," Marriner recalled. "Anyone in the Academy could speak up and get involved. It was great fun."
Mixed performance practice
During the war years, Neville Marriner met Robin Thurston Dart, a young musicologist who - like he - was skeptical of romantic interpretations of Baroque music and sought out historical models. Dart became the most important advisor to Marriner's living room orchestra. "He taught us to approach this music with a different style," he said, "and we discovered how wonderful it can be."
But while Dart later advocated performing on historical instruments, Marriner and his friends decided to keep their modern ones. The Academy devised a mixed performance practice. "Back then we decided to orient ourselves on the latest scholarly research of historically-informed performance, but also to adapt that knowledge to modern instruments," said Marriner. That style became the trademark of the Academy and its founder.
Baroque as a market niche
The living room orchestra gave its first concert in 1959, and sensational record sales were soon to follow. Before long, no chamber orchestra was being played on the radio as often as the Academy. Neville Marriner had found his market.
"People were curious about Baroque music and couldn't get enough of it," he recalls. "We were a very fresh, dynamic ensemble, and you could hear it in our concerts and recordings. Haydn, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven suddenly sounded completely differently than they did with symphony orchestras."
The art of thoughtful conducting
The Academy grew in size over the years. Initially leading the musicians from the first violinist's seat, Marriner discovered that a larger ensemble needed a conductor. The idea was planted by the renowned conductor Pierre Monteux. Approaching Marriner after a concert, Monteux asked him why he didn't conduct and invited him to visit a master class in his conducting school in the U.S.
"I hadn't considered it before then and felt quite comfortable as leading concertmaster," said Marriner. "But soon I noticed that the baton has a magic quality. Having once held it, I didn’t want to let it go."
Marriner took Monteux's central advice seriously: "Make no unnecessary motions while conducting. And keep the score in your head, not your head in the score." To this day, Marriner conquers every orchestra without superfluous movement, leading with sparing but clear gestures and always maintaining eye contact with his musicians.
"Most orchestras hate conductors whose arms are always flinging wildly in the air," he says. "They may entertain the audience but only cause confusion in the orchestra."
Touring to stay fit
Ten years ago - on his 80th birthday - Neville Marriner expressed a wish to take things slower. But the "baton magic" still holds its spell, and he remains a sought-after guest conductor of major international orchestras. At 90, he's touring Europe until the summer of 2014 with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, leading his "baby" with "incredible sprightliness and geniality," as critic John Allison attested in the "Daily Telegraph."
"I'm in fairly good health," the maestro says, "because I've been on tour constantly for the past 60 years. It's become something of a health regimen for me. Other people read a lot or solve crossword puzzles to say mentally fit. With me, it's the ongoing work with music."