Sir Neville Marriner conducts his 90th birthday tour with grace, humor

 Sir Neville Marriner conducts his 90th birthday tour with grace, humor
Sir Neville Marriner. (Lukasz Unterschuetz / The Colburn School)

Sir Neville Marriner is not the most ancient mariner of the classical music world — that honor, he'll tell you, may belong to Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the former Minnesota Orchestra conductor who has six and a half months' seniority over the 90-year-old Sir Neville and remains active on the international concert circuit.

But Marriner's 90th birthday year — he'll turn 91 on April 15 — has been a big deal in the world of classical music, where the conductor is widely regarded as one of the most prolific, rigorous and amiable musicians of his time.


Marriner's artistic home is London, where in 1958 he founded the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as a small, informal chamber group that turned into a juggernaut with hundreds of recordings and unrelenting touring. Marriner also has an important place in Southern California music history as the founding music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 1969 to 1978. He's back for a 90th birthday bow, with a concert Jan. 18 leading the Colburn Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's violin concerto and Holst's "The Planets" at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Marriner spoke in late December from the London home he shares with Molly, his wife of 58 years, with a steady stream of chuckles despite having apologized for being "grumpy" and "a poor [interview] subject at the moment" because of an upper respiratory infection. "I think what I need is a large whiskey now to try to get me out of this grouch," Sir Neville said.

A great deal is being made of this being your 90th birthday year, but the two orchestras you started are now a combined 101 years old.

Oh, really. My God. I hadn't thought of it that way, no indeed. That's a century there, anyway. That's good.

Have you been forced to blow out candles and eat cake in every city you've traveled to since April?

Not quite. I've had many, many celebratory meals, I must say. My food and wine intake has increased considerably this year. Germany took it much more seriously, and at one [concert] the audience had to stand up and sing "Happy Birthday" in English. I felt that for a German audience that was quite something.

Did the "Academy" in Academy of St. Martin in the Fields reflect an interest from the start in serving an educational as well as a performing function?

No, it was the idea of the vicar of St. Martin in the Fields. We'd been using his church as a place to rehearse for a couple of years; we didn't do concerts but just sort of got together for pleasure. The keyboard player of our group was the organist of St. Martin in the Fields, and eventually he said we should give a concert. We didn't know what to call ourselves. We didn't want to be an "ensemble" or a "chamber orchestra," and the vicar said that in the 17th and 18th century around St. Martin there were groups with similar interests called "academies" — the Academy of Science, the Academy of Literature, that were just clubs, really. He said, "Why don't you call yourself the Academy?" We said, "Fine, the Academy." He said, "You can't just call yourselves the Academy, you have to mention the church." We said, "Well, that's ridiculous, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, on the program it's much too long." He said, "Please, just do it for me." So our first concert was with this long, long, hopeless title. Quite soon after we made our first record and it was under that name, so we were stuck with it forever.

Did recording the soundtrack for the film "Amadeus" (1984) lead to many new opportunities?

I think we very much wanted it to be business as usual after the film. I felt the film justified itself by making Mozart accessible to so many more people. But for the next year or two we were always asked to play music from the film. I don't want to get caught up playing the same repertoire over and over again, otherwise you can become a very dreary institution. We did manage to break away from it eventually. But we must be grateful to the film because it gave us a different audience, quite different from the [traditional] symphonic audience.

Can you share any observations about how audiences have changed?

I think they're much more sophisticated nowadays. About six months ago I was in Beijing with their national orchestra, and I'd been warned that the audience was very unsophisticated there. But in fact they were quite quiet, they didn't clap between movements, they didn't walk in and out during the performance. So all audiences have grown up considerably during my lifetime. I remember one occasion in Ireland where it was printed on the program that ladies would please refrain from knitting during the performance.

Did coming to Los Angeles help your career in Great Britain and Europe?

I think it helped my reputation. I think for people in England the fact you were working in Hollywood sounded immensely glamorous. But of course, musically speaking it was impressive because Jascha Heifetz was teaching [in Los Angeles], and [cellist Gregor] Piatigorsky. It certainly helped me enormously to engage with the pupils of these distinguished teachers.


Decca recently issued "The Argo Years," a 28-disc boxed set of the Academy, spanning the years 1961 to 1981. Have you listened to all of it?

Not yet. I listen to them when I feel strong enough to brace myself for the critical job of listening to them. Sometimes I'm very impressed, but sometimes I say, "It's time to do it again, and get it right this time."

In the United States there's worry that orchestral music and opera are a shrinking pie, and it's becoming more difficult to sustain financially. Is there a comparable problem in Great Britain?

It's international. Absolutely everywhere we go, whether it's Germany, Austria, France — Italy is particularly hard hit. Even in Japan I've noticed they have to be a little more careful now the way they fund things.

Are you concerned about what will become of the tradition that you're part of, stretching from the Renaissance to the present? Will classical music be able to ride this out?

I think if it's good it will. I think the best will survive. It may damage the ones whose standards are not quite as good as one would wish.

Has turning 90 meant anything to you as an artist?

You do begin to reflect on your career and wonder if there is anything left that you want to achieve, whether you should switch off now and just enjoy the freedom of having no responsibilities at all. It certainly made me examine my past performances a little carefully, and I suppose rather regret that I'll never have a chance to redeem some of the bad ones.

With age, have you had to make any adjustments or compromises in your routine as far as rehearsals or performances?

No, I haven't. I can still just about play tennis, I can just about move across the court. They invite me to sit down at rehearsals, but it doesn't suit me. You see the orchestra quite differently from a seated position, so I still stand for my rehearsals as well as the concerts.


When you began the Academy, weren't you conducting from a chair because you also were playing the violin?

I was, indeed. I started in the sitting position, so maybe I'll finish standing up. We hope, anyway.