Legendary British Orchestra Celebrates Its 50th Birthday
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields still the go-to-orchestra for top soloists
When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and listening to classical radio station KDFC, it seemed that every other piece was played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. For years, I was convinced that this strangely named ensemble owned the station. For all I knew, the orchestra cranked out thousands of recordings in a studio around the back.
Sir Neville Marriner laughs when I tell him this story as we sit in his living room, which overlooks a leafy London garden square. In this room, 50 years ago, Marriner and a group of like-minded musicians began rehearsals for what would become a world-famous chamber ensemble and orchestra. “Most of us had been in symphony orchestras, but we wanted more responsibility,” says Marriner, who was principal second violin of the London Symphony Orchestra at the time.
“We used to call ourselves ‘refugees from conductors.’”
Their idea was to explore Baroque and Classical repertory in a fresh way. “In the early ’60s, Baroque music was still being played by far too many people,” says Academy violinist Kenneth Sillito. “Neville was in the vanguard of ‘the big cleanup’ with smaller forces, cleaner sound, and with a musicologist [Thurston Dart] involved.”
The sound was fresher, cleaner, and more precise, allowing the invigorating joy of Bach and his contemporaries to come through. With a band of handpicked players and Marriner leading from the concertmaster’s seat, the orchestra sparkled.
In 1958, the group’s keyboard player, Jack Churchill, director of music at the St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church on Trafalgar Square, brought the ensemble to the church for a concert. Its success gave the Academy a good reputation—and its name (a November 1959 concert, with music by Albioni, Corelli, Torelli, and Locatelli, is regarded as the orchestra’s first “professional” concert).
The church, however, is not the Academy’s base; the orchestra gives relatively few London concerts. “The bulk of our work is foreign touring,” says general manager Dawn Day. “In London we promote five concerts a year with maybe another six to ten around the UK.”
Early on, the Academy was asked to play in festivals in Bath and Edinburgh, and then abroad in Spain, Germany, and the United States. Today international touring takes up about 75 percent of its time. “If it’s January, it must be Germany,” Sillito jokes. And if it’s the spring, it must be the US.”
The Academy was in North America between October 5–18, 2009, and returns April 7–18, 2010.
Besides the extensive touring, the Academy is different from many orchestras in another way. “Unlike a lot of outfits, the Academy didn’t spend years on the road and then get recordings—the recordings came first,” Sillito says. The Academy was talent-spotted early on by the founder of the L’Oiseau-Lyre label, releasing its first recording in 1961.
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.”