Legendary British Orchestra Celebrates Its 50th Birthday
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields still the go-to-orchestra for top soloists
Marriner realized that there was a lot of neglected repertory to record, and by 1975 the orchestra had signed for a second time with the Philips label, the largest contract ever with a chamber orchestra. The Academy’s core was a chamber ensemble, based on an octet, but it had to increase its forces when the Philips label wanted to record Mozart symphonies. A conductor would be necessary and Marriner stepped into the role. “It was still a democratic institution, but they did it my way,” he says.
When Marriner started working more outside Britain (he conducted the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra), late violinist Iona Brown took over the concertmaster/director role. “Iona was the most extroverted of personalities and a very elegant player,” Marriner says.
Kenneth Sillito, who often leads the Academy now, joined in 1979. His initial impression of playing with the Academy? “I was terrified!” he says. “The Academy had amazing precision and brilliance.”
It’s still true today, says violist Robert Smissen: “Often the Academy begins where others end.”
With justifiable pride in its high standards, the Academy also has a certain go-it-alone ethos, which stems from Marriner’s early encounter with the British Council, whose conditions for underwriting a proposed tour were onerous. Marriner says, “I decided we would never again ask for help. From that moment we lived by our wits.”
Wits alone may not be enough in a recessionary climate in which private and public funding are dwindling. The lucrative recordings that supported the orchestra and its projects have also faded away (the biggest recording success, the soundtrack to the Milos Forman film Amadeus, still brings in royalties). Players are freelance and must take other work to survive. And competition from other chamber outfits and from period-instrument bands playing the same repertory has clearly had an effect.
This summer, the Academy had two CDs on the Billboard Top 10 Classical Albums chart: Vivaldi: The Four Seasons with Joshua Bell, and Bach: Concertos with Julia Fischer.
That live-by-your-wits approach also applies to the Academy’s educational projects. “Everything we do—concerts, tours, education—has to come with its own funding,” says Academy creative advisor Sam Glazer. This doesn’t mean that the projects have been insignificant.
For example, the Academy’s project with the city of Colchester, in the UK, culminated in a performance last December with musicians from a local school, an amateur orchestra, and a recorder ensemble, all creatively responding to Tan Dun’s Ghost Dances. There’s also an ongoing mentoring relationship with the Southbank Sinfonietta, an orchestra made up of post-college young professionals, some of whom have joined the Academy.
There are young faces in the orchestra and in the audience at two recent concerts that I attended, one in London with the German violinist Julia Fischer at the helm and another at Dartington, in Devon, with Sillito. “The Academy is such a family—anyone can say anything,” Marriner had told me. And, indeed, as I sat and listened to the Academy rehearse at Dartington, there’s much cross talk and joking, but still a seriousness of purpose. I wondered if this orchestra, so well loved, will survive another 50 years. “The Academy is starting to dip its toe into the pool of reality,” says Academy violist Robert Smissen. “We need to be more evangelical about what we can do.”
The Academy’s future may lie in more collaborations with major artists such as violinists Fischer and Bell. “When you get players of Bell’s caliber,” Smissen says, “it lifts you and makes you explore new things.”
Marriner is 85 this year and making fewer appearances with the Academy. But the orchestra’s sound today is not so different from its first years, he says, the “texture and vitality” still firmly in place.
“The Academy style,” he says, “is always there.”