Academy of St Martin in the Fields
By: Robin Usher
May 5, 2017
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has been one of the world’s most acclaimed orchestras for more than 50 years. That renown has continued since its founder and chief conductor, Sir Neville Marriner, handed over as music director to American virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell in 2011.
‘’It was a huge change after Sir Neville passed the baton to Josh,’’ says the orchestra’s principal cellist, Stephen Orton, from his home in England. The biggest difference was the absence of the conductor, with Bell leading the orchestra as soloist.
This arrangement is also in place for the orchestra’s performances with other renowned musicians such as American pianist Murray Perahia and German violinist Julia Fischer when Bell is unavailable.
‘’I am not sure what will happen in the future,’’ Orton says. ’’But mostly we are directed from the violin or piano.’’
Melbourne audiences have an opportunity to hear the new-look academy when Bell leads it in two programs at the Recital Centre on April 19 and 20 as part of an Australian tour.
The musicians are familiar with the music, having played it on previous tours to the US and Germany. The first concert includes Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony, while the second is made up of Mozart’s 25th symphony and fourth violin concerto, concluding with Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.
‘’Playing with Josh has been amazing for us,’’ Orton says. ‘’He puts so much energy into a performance that sitting opposite him on the stage I almost feel I have to leap out of my seat. It is almost like a pop concert quite often, with the audience on their feet screaming their appreciation.’’
He says Bell was not the only candidate but the musicians preferred him based on previous experiences touring and recording with him. ‘’He has world-wide appeal and is also well known playing other sorts of music, such as film scores and lighter styles.
The scale of the legacy that Bell took over from Marriner, who founded the orchestra in 1959, is awesome. Marriner was a key figure in the development of the modern chamber orchestra and the academy, which takes its name from the London church where it gave its first performance, became one of the world’s most recorded orchestras.
Marriner, who died in October 2016 aged 92, remained closely connected to the orchestra, conducting an Asian tour only months before his death.
One thing that has not changed under Bell is the orchestra’s repertoire. The academy first gained attention for its ‘’amazingly precise’’ recordings of works by Haydn and Handel. But this coincided with the development of research into early music that led to the formation of orchestras using original instruments around the world.
‘’We hardly do a Baroque program now,’’ Orton says. ‘’There is still a place for it in our style but we have moved away from that.’’
This means that when the academy performs such an iconic piece as Beethoven’s third symphony it uses small forces by the orchestra requiring extra energy from the musicians. ‘’This is one of the ways we have developed under Josh, although in the past we have played works by Brahms and Vaughan Williams,’’ he says.
Orton has been the academy’s principal cellist for more than 30 years but his experience includes playing with larger orchestras such as the London Symphony and London Philharmonia where he filled in as principal cello while the permanent position was being filled.
He describes himself as principally a chamber musician. He is also a member of both the Academy Chamber Ensemble – made up of the orchestra’s string players performing such works as Schubert’s Octet – and the acclaimed Chilingirian Quartet which he joined four years ago.
He says he joined because of his love of the quartet repertoire. He remained in London to play with group in March, rather than tour the US with the academy. ‘’Luckily the quartet is not very busy at the moment,’’ he says.
Orton hopes to catch up with former academy members such as the director of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, William Hennessy, during the Australian tour. Hennessy remained in touch with Marriner, and arranged for him to conduct the MCO during its debut season at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2009.
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields under violinist Joshua Bell performs at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 19 and 20. The first program includes Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony while the second includes Mozart’s 25th symphony and fourth violin concerto and Beethoven’s third symphony. The Academy Chamber Ensemble will perform at 11am on April 20.