Buffeted by wind and rain, I was strolling past the Musikverein on Tuesday afternoon when the above poster caught my eye. Sir Neville Marriner, who passed away on Sunday, had been scheduled to lead the Academy of St Martin in the Fields that evening, the first of a three-stop European tour for the orchestra.
I ducked inside and inquired about the concert. To my shock, I learned that it was still on—the Academy was to perform the concert sans conductor, in honor of their late founder and longtime leader. Doubly shocking, the box office told me there were still two tickets left.
Marriner’s path to the podium is one of my favorites in classical music, perhaps because I sympathize all too deeply with the disgruntled-violinist trope. Though a talented performer—he was principal second violin of the London Symphony for nine seasons—when it came to his skills on the instrument, Marriner was modest to the point of self-deprecation.
“[As] a violinist of my quality, what I felt about music I couldn’t express completely,” he once lamented. “It’s rather like an actor having a speech impediment.”
Feeling stifled by life in a symphony orchestra, Marriner formed a chamber ensemble on the side with other restless LSO colleagues in 1958. The next year, they gave their first concert in the Trafalgar Square church that would become the Academy’s namesake, with Marriner leading his fellow “refugees from conductors” from the first desk.
But the conductor’s siren song proved irresistible. With some coaxing by then-LSO music director Pierre Monteux, Marriner gradually traded in his violin for a baton. Under that baton, the Academy would record hundreds of records, becoming the most prolific orchestra-conductor pair in history.
Though Marriner stepped down as the Academy’s music director in 2011, the ensemble remains inextricably tied to his name. There’s the oft-repeated crack of uncertain origin: a radio announcer says, “And that was the Academy of St Martin in the Fields…,” to which a parrot dutifully squawks, “…conducted by Neville Marriner!”
But enough of this eulogizing—as far as I’m concerned, the Academy’s concert did it best. Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for a commanding-as-ever performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, leading the orchestra with the merest of nods, followed by the Academy’s finessed and impeccable Mozart Symphony No. 39.
But the solemn tributes to Marriner which opened and closed the concert were undoubtedly the most memorable. First, the Academy requested that the audience stand, not clap, for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. After a glowing rendition, the entirety of the Musikverein shuffled to its feet, and profound silence filled that great hall.
Later, after the Mozart, Academy concertmaster Tomo Keller announced that the orchestra would conclude with an encore close to Marriner’s heart: Percy Grainger’s aching string orchestra arrangement of “Danny Boy.”
Academy principal violist Robert Smissen mentioned the Grainger arrangement in his touching, lively tribute to Marriner in the Guardian. “I’m not sure any of us will be able to play that for a while,” he admitted.
Two nights later, the Academy did—not in spite of their grief, but because of it. Sir Neville may be gone, but his orchestra plays on.