Marriner's `Magic Wand'

Since recording the score to `Amadeus,' his orchestra has soared in popularity. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

IT is now revealed. One of the most inspired music deals in film history was clinched during a mad dash between two airports. Sir Neville Marriner, the celebrated British conductor, remembers the occasion well. It was in New York. Three men eager to make a screen version of the international award-winning stage play ``Amadeus'' joined him in his car en route between La Guardia and Kennedy.

His impromptu travel companions, who included film director Milos Forman and ``Amadeus'' playwright Peter Shaffer, explained they had been searching the music world for the right orchestra to perform the proposed movie's score. Given that the story was based on the life Mozart, the way in which the works of the 18th-century composer were presented would obviously be crucial to the overall success of the project.

His companions said that whenever those in the know were asked, Mr. Marriner's name and that of his renowned London orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, kept cropping up as the premier choice.

``It was a complete surprise to me,'' recalls Marriner, who, because of his hectic work schedule, could only manage to speak with the men on the hop.

By the time they reached Kennedy, Marriner had agreed on behalf of the academy to become involved. Nevertheless, there was one important proviso: that the music would not in any way be ``hotted up.'' In other words, the conductor explains, ``it wouldn't become a Hollywood score, but [would be played] just the way that Mozart wrote it.''

Director Forman happily agreed to this condition and, says Marriner, ``stuck to it wonderfully'' throughout.

The music for ``Amadeus'' went on to become the most decorated score in film history, not to mention receiving a staggering 13 Gold Discs, making it worldwide one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time.

Ensemble at Carnegie Hall

But for Marriner and his academy, there is an even more thrilling spinoff. Having long been associated with the works of Mozart, the group has been singled out from among the world's top orchestras to be the sole player next year at Carnegie Hall on the day of the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. Among classical musicians this is an especially coveted honor.

On an exceptionally rare free morning for the conductor, Marriner chatted with me about himself and the academy he has headed for over three decades.

``We got a lot of hate mail after doing [the `Amadeus' score],'' he remarks. ``And the only thing you can do is point out that through this one medium, we are playing Mozart to an audience a hundred times larger than anything we could possibly hope to play to in a lifetime of concert-giving ... I don't see any particular vice in that.''

Marriner, nevertheless, does recognize the dangers inherent in the current trend of attempting to broaden the appeal of classical music. With the academy holding the distinction of being the world's most recorded orchestra, he has clearly deliberated long and hard on this subject.

``Obviously you are reaching a much larger audience, but you have to be very sure that you're getting the right quality through to them,'' he says, ``because if you're giving them something second rate, they'll probably think that's the way classical music is''

Uncompromisingly high standards coupled with what may, at times, seem to his colleagues an honesty bordering on the brutal are the traits that stand out most when talking with Marriner. Although an abundantly charming man devoid of any hint of arrogance or impatience, it is immediately evident that, musically speaking, he knows what he wants and, if at all possible, gets it.

Ken Russell, the famous film director, recently summed up Marriner's talents as simply, ``the magic wand of Sir Neville.''

The orchestra began in Marriner's living room. Furniture would be pushed aside to accommodate a small coterie of musicians - initially string players only - who got together in their spare time to make music for their own enjoyment. They jokingly referred to themselves as ``refugees from conductors.''

Church concerts

Marriner was then, in fact, principal second violin in the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and, although the chief organizer of the ad hoc group, had no inclination at that point of taking on a formal conducting role.

``I think all of the [original] players ... were pretty fed up at other people waving a baton at them and telling them what to do,'' muses Marriner of those early days. ``When you are in a symphony orchestra, it's sometimes a little bit frustrating to feel that you have so little personal responsibility for the performance; you are one of 100.''

After a while, the group was invited to London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church (from which the academy later took its name) to give a series of chamber concerts. From those modest church performances, the musicians' reputation spread rapidly. Their numbers also grew apace. At this stage Marriner found that the occasional conductor-like flick of his violin bow from the front chair was fast becoming impracticable.

It was maestro Pierre Monteux, his former LSO boss, who, after attending a few of those concerts, good-naturedly chided Marriner: ``Why don't you stand up and conduct like a man!'' With great trepidation, Marriner recalls, he finally did.

The academy's high ideals were established at the outset. There was much talk among the original players, for instance, about ``string articulation,'' which part of the bow to use, how fast the ``vibrato speed'' should be and what kind of sound precisely they were aiming for.

Marriner believes this unusually conscious deliberation over such technical matters early on made an indelible mark and that those decisions have been passed on to subsequent players by, as he puts it, ``osmosis.'' thus maintaining the exact same freshness and unique sound that the Academy possessed at its inception.

``I suppose it's because we only took on musicians who were capable of assimilating the sort of style that we already had,'' comments Marriner. ``That doesn't happen with many orchestras.''

``In terms of chamber music, they are No. 1 in the world. ... ``The two things that really stand out about Marriner,'' says Tom Eisner, a board member of the London Philharmonic and a player in its first violin section, ``are his uncanny knack for gathering the very best players around him ... which isn't as easy a thing to do as you might think, and that he is an amazingly astute businessman, something that's definitely very unusual as far as musicians go.''

Marriner, who also went on to found the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and was, until 1986, the Minnesota Orchestra's artistic chief, attributes the academy's success to the fact that it began not for business, but pleasure. ``I think if you start idealistically, as we did 30 years ago, ... wanting this particular, very high level of performance, then the best people are going to come to you.''

No prima donnas allowed

And come they do. In droves. For every new place in the academy, (it holds auditions twice a year), there are an amazing 60-70 hopefuls. When musicians apply, it is taken as read that they can play their instruments superbly. But that isn't enough. Marriner looks for what he refers to as ``soloist capabilities, with an ensemble mentality.'' There have been some top-notch musicians, he remarks, who have performed only once with the academy, simply because it quickly became clear that they were too ``single-minded'' in terms of their talent to meld sufficiently with the group's special sound.

Oddly enough, blending socially is considered just as important. Since the musicians are likely, given the heavy demand for the academy's music worldwide, to spend more time with each other than with their own families, It is imperative that within the orchestra there are no, as he puts it, ``abrasive personalities.''

Would-be members, finally, must be willing sure enough of what they have to offer and their ability to stay in peak form to be able to accept the academy's unusual employment policy. Marriner is convinced that this is another vital ingredient for the group's ongoing success.

``We have no contracts,'' Marriner states emphatically. ``I think that music and lifetime contracts don't sit very comfortably with each other. There isn't the excitement of knowing that you are playing for your life at every performance.'' Not having a contract ``certainly does put an edge on your performance that you don't get if you are utterly secure.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.