Prolific Marriner is a welcome guest worldwide

November 04, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Although this week's stint conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be his first, Sir Neville Marriner is no stranger to Meyerhoff Hall and the BSO.

"Indeed I'm not," says the cheerful British conductor, adding that he tries to hear the BSO every time he guest-conducts the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. "You have a very well-balanced orchestra, with a beautiful rounded sound that's not dependent on stellar personalities. You also have one of the very best concert halls to be built anywhere in the last 20 years. What? You say it cost less than $24 million to build? Then your orchestra got a great bargain!"

Marriner was knighted in 1985 by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to British music -- not the least of which was making more records than any other conductor in the history of recorded sound -- but doesn't much like being called Sir Neville. Although he has no idea of how many records he has made, conservative estimates place the number at considerably more than 400.

"It's so ridiculously STUFFY" [being addressed as Sir Neville], he says, exploding with laughter into the telephone from Houston where he has been guest-conducting that city's symphony. "Here in Houston, the players call me 'Snazz'."

Except for being the principal guest conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Marriner currently has no permanent post. From 1979 to 1986, he was the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, and from 1983 to 1989 he also occupied that position in Stuttgart.

Now, although he continues to make 15 to 20 records a year with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (the famous chamber orchestra he founded in 1959), he makes guest appearances regularly with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic.

Only in the last 15 years has the 69-year-old conductor, who was world famous long before his red hair turned gray, begun to conduct the major works of the symphonic repertory with full-sized orchestras. In the early '50s he was was considered one of Great Britain's best or chestral violinists, eventually becoming concertmaster of the London Symphony. Within a few years, however, he began to feel an itch to conduct and went on to work with the renowned Pierre Monteux (as did many other aspiring conductors, including the BSO's David Zinman).

After founding the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, he began to churn out a spate of best-selling recordings of 18th-century masterpieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and others, making him the Herbert von Karajan of the chamber-orchestra repertory.

"We were very fortunate that we were there in the beginning of the baroque movement," Marriner says. "A lot of our performances were firsts as far as the recording market was concerned."

But Marriner didn't really begin to branch out into a bigger arena -- at least in terms of repertory -- until he went to Minnesota as music director in 1979.

"It was very hard," he says of beginning to conduct the meat-and-potatoes symphonic literature. "You think you know it all -- or at least I did because as a violinist I had played the whole symphonic repertory under such people as Toscanini, Furtwangler, Monteux and Krips.

"What was revelatory was discovering the difference between taking part in a performance as a member of an orchestra and actually leading it. Any orchestral player has opinions -- you like some interpretations and dislike others. But if you're a conductor, you have to have convictions. And that precludes flexibility. Once you have decided to commit yourself to a performance, you have to fight off other influences and you can't afford to lose your nerve."

Conducting the big repertory also led Marriner to make some other discoveries. All his life he had detested much British music, particularly the works of Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the two greatest symphonists in his country's history.

"I was baffled by their music," he says. "As a violinist I found them nebulous and formless. So much of the string writing was textural rather than thematic, and violinists get bored by filling in the colors. As a conductor, I've discovered their appeal. It's creating those textures. As a player I might not enjoy it any more than I did then, but for a conductor the pleasure is creating the whole effect."

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