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Musings about music from a conducting legend

Aspen Times writer

By Eben HarrellAspen Times Staff WriterLegendary English conductor Sir Neville Marriner makes his Aspen debut Friday, June 25, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Marriner is best known as the founder, longtime director and conductor of the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a chamber orchestra based in London. Under his leadership, the Academy received worldwide acclaim and recognition, primarily through a discography of more than 500 recordings.Along with being a consummate conductor performing with major orchestras across the world, Marriner is also the reason I am alive – he introduced my parents, cellist Lynn Harrell and journalist Linda Blandford, 30 years ago. He is a witty, lively man whose demeanor reflects the style of the chamber orchestra that made him famous. I recently sat down with Sir Neville to discuss his long career and Aspen Music Festival concert.Question: My father is a cellist and his father was a musician. How did you learn music? Is it true your father taught you the violin at an early age?Answer: My dad was not a professional musician. He was just an amateur but he was rather good at it. He played the piano and the violin and he also conducted the local choral society. I remember never going to sleep at night without music in the house. No one ever talked about me becoming a professional musician. I just drifted into it. I mean, I don’t remember a particular moment where a decision was made. I was just always lucky that it was always around. Now you and your son Andrew, a clarinetist, have recorded Mozart’s clarinet concerto together. What was that like?I tried to make a habit of steering my children away from classical music, although I didn’t find much success with Andrew, as you know. We don’t make a habit of [working together]. There’s something slightly sickly about father and son acts playing together. Also, it generally affects the way you play. You have more anxiety for each other than you would playing with someone not quite so close to you. But this seemed to be an occasion; he’d recorded the concerto with other people and I’d recorded it with two or three other clarinet players. But it seemed so remiss not to do it together because I love the way he plays it. I daren’t tell him this, of course, lest he become conceited. He’s really quite an artist so it was a great treat. At first a successful violinist, your great breakthrough was the establishment of the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in 1959. Under your leadership, it went on to become the most-recorded chamber orchestra in the world. But folklore has it that in the beginning it was just you and a few of your poker buddies who decided to play for fun. How much of that is myth?Yes, that’s right, although not all of them were poker buddies. The poker buddies were largely in the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) when I was a violinist there. These were people who, as much as they enjoyed the LSO, didn’t want it to be the only thing they did. So we had this small group that played together for a couple of years, just for fun. We didn’t even think of giving any concerts or anything. It was only when our keyboard player, a chap called Jack Churchill, whose proper job was director of music at Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, he said why don’t we give a concert sometime. We said, no, we don’t want to give concerts. But he said that after the services in the church there’s quite a few people who stay on just to keep warm, so we’d have some sort of an audience. And we agreed. At one of the n see Marriner on page B5– continued from page B3 earliest concerts this Australian lady showed up who owned a record company and asked if we wanted to make records for her. So it was purely accidental the way it started.It seems like the orchestra really caught on to a niche there. While the LSO and other big symphony orchestras had this big, turgid, grand sound, you guys had this sort of sharp, witty, vivacious approach, which people responded to.That’s exactly it. We wanted to play a different sort of music and the sort of music that we started with was mostly 18th-century Italian music. It had always been badly treated by orchestras. Even when you were talking about Mozart and Haydn, symphony orchestras played them with 16 first violins and 14 second violins, and it had all gotten very heavy and lethargic. The texture was too thick. We discovered that with a small group you became much more athletic in your performance – the texture was thinner, there was much more vitality in the sound. We looked at [prospective members] very closely before we took them to make sure they had the sort of sound that would assimilate into the sound we were looking for. The Academy really developed its style over the first two years when we were just playing for fun. Let’s talk about the program for the Aspen concert. You have Mozart and Haydn in the first half, which I’m sure fans of your work with the Academy will be happy to see. But it’s the second half that interests me. Beethoven’s second symphony was the symphony right before “Eroica,” which revolutionized the form. So the second symphony is right on the verge of this huge shift. Can you talk a little about that?It’s the difference between Haydn and Beethoven, really. Beethoven was established with “Eroica,” there’s no doubt about that, but the second symphony is somewhat of a throwback to Haydn and Mozart, particularly Haydn. Haydn had developed the last London symphonies about as far as he could go, both in terms of material and the texture he was looking for. Beethoven suddenly took those a hundred miles further on so quickly. And the second symphony makes his mark. The second symphony is really the dividing line between Beethoven and everyone else.In this light, how do you approach it? Do you make hints at this great transition to come?You do. I think the weight of performance you are looking for is different. When you have horns, trumpets and timpani, the weight of string sound is quite different. You have to make sure that they are not overwhelmed and that the violin section doesn’t have to struggle too much to compete. And then you have the wind players in the middle that have a lot of the solo passages in the symphony, they, too, have to be accommodated so that they are not blowing their heads off all the time. So the early stages of rehearsal are really to do with balance and then you can begin to talk about style. And then, when you get to performance, you talk about the actual passion that you wish to ingest.And all this has to be done in a week?Yes, in four rehearsals. But musicians are so much more sophisticated now than when I first started as an orchestral player. I mean, in my earliest symphonic days with the LSO, there were disasters on a regular basis. There was always something going wrong, but I think now you have a completely new register of performance.This is your first performance in Aspen?Yes, it is. I stormed out of rehearsal in Vienna a couple of years ago, and I was stalking along because I was so mad at the orchestra. I was sulking back to my hotel room and there’s [Aspen Music Director] David [Zinman] sitting on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel in Vienna. I hadn’t seen David in years and years. And so I settled down to talk to him. And he said, “Come to Aspen.” So here I am.You’ve had such a legendary career, and you are so respected, do you feel that entitles you to the occasional Toscanini tantrum?Generally, no. I don’t like falling out with the orchestra. But Vienna was an exception because they think they are so grand; they are so pleased with themselves. It was quite salutary, actually; I mean the effect afterward was so rewarding I am tempted to do it more often. But generally we don’t have tantrums. I’ve yet to meet musicians who go onto the stage not wanting to give a good performance.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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