Academy of St Martin in the Fields steps into the future with Joshua Bell as its new music director
Inaugural concert at Cadogan Hall and USA Beethoven tour
The mood is buoyant, morale is high, the fizz of success is in the air. After many projects with Joshua Bell as soloist and director under our belt, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields this year took the bold step of appointing him as music director. This highly acclaimed musician from the States is the catalyst which will propel the orchestra further into the 21st century. The chamber music element is strong in this orchestra, and having a leader-director works on so many levels: the musicians must know the score as they would if playing a string quartet, the rhythm and propulsion is initiated by an audible lead and the musical telepathy is necessarily heightened without the end of a stick to follow – which leads to a higher level of awareness, musical thoughtfulness, spontaneity and sensitivity. Stylistically, the approach is historically aware but with a great technical finesse and sense of detail. These qualities have always existed in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but are now bubbling to the surface in a surge of unleashed energy.
Day 1 – London to New York
Last night's live broadcast at Cadogan Hall in London is still dancing in my bones, restlessly and joyfully. After the Bruch Violin Concerto I almost expected our BBC presenter for the evening to catch us coming off stage at half time glistening with the heat of the moment, and like a sports presenter – microphone in hand – asking how we felt about the opening phrase, did the decrescendo at the coda work as we had hoped, was our new manager up to the job, what was the mood in the team for the second half, and the tempo of the Mozart symphony last movement, what about that searching misterioso tempo? Yes, no, maybe?
Playing with Josh is a visceral undertaking, sometimes primal. It is always physical and athletic. Joshua swings round to the strings and a palette of different facial expressions immediately signal what landscape or mood we must communicate. From a wild 'to battle!' look in the eye to a serene innocence, his body tilting and swaying. It's all there to see, feel and lock into – always thoughtful, never aggressive. During longer more meditative musical phrases he closes his eyes and paints the space above the orchestra with his bow, switching from sitting to standing with effortless feline grace. The preparation and dedication is always striking, the intention genuine and unforced, the will and commitment compelling. He speaks firmly and gently to us, searching, experimenting, considering. Unconventional bowings abound, a constant challenge for the strings, and some of the violinists at Cadogan got caught occasionally throwing in an up-down instead of a down-down. Does the audience see this as a lapse of concentration on the part of the culprit or a sign of artistic independence? (L'indépendance!) It is irrelevant of course. The musical purpose is so felt and so well shared that being neat and tidy becomes secondary and communicating immediately and intensely is paramount. This is as it should be. Great artists who lift and stretch their fellow musicians and their audiences beyond the chair they are sitting in and beyond the notes on the page are in a minority. It is a privilege to know that the Academy of St Martin's tradition of well-honed musicianship, wolf-like chamber music ears and beauty of sound that Sir Neville Marriner took such care to create, can now be at the disposal of another great master. Sir Neville's spirit is never far away. His cunning smile, sharp wit and warmth knit us together come what may, wherever we are, and he will always be the Don, the Godfather, the High Priest to whom we owe the fun times, the banter, the excellence.
Today I am a deviant, flying solo to New York in advance of our enormously long three-week American tour. My suitcase only just made it down the stairs from my rooftop apartment, like a stubborn dog not wanting to go walkies. My violin will be reunited with the sound wizard Samuel Zygmuntowicz in Brooklyn, for some tweaking and tenderness. This operation is long overdue. Playing without a shoulder rest – riding symphony after symphony bareback – has taken its toll on the varnish. A nudge of the sound post à l'Américaine ('more sound, I vant more sound!') and a bit of a clean, and my violin will be revved and revived for the Beethoven-Bell tour.
We are invited to party at Joshua's New York home next week. I hear the living room is styled with the curves of a Stradivarius. I hear it is a penthouse suite with a rooftop terrace where exotic birds and butterflies dance, the air is scented with mimosa and fawn-like creatures will be lounging with the lizards. I hear the sunset will be shades of Martian purple, and the ghost of King Kong will be waving in the distance. There is talk of George Clooney popping in to say hello, and of Woody playing us some of his clarinet jazz. Flying to New York will always be a Metro-Goldwyn adventure…
Midway. Day 15 – California
Usually on tour, midway means a lull. It means missing home, needing a hug, bus journey blues, and comfort food. Midway through this tour we hit the Hockney blue of California, Giacometti tall palm trees, mountains of lobster, a free day and the first truly great hotel for five entire nights of rare luxury. So appreciated.
The audience reaction all tour has been nothing short of rock concert enthusiasm, with bejewelled wealthy patrons jumping up and down in the aisles and whoops of joy emitting from young and old. I have noticed riveted children: a contented youngster at a concert is a heart-warming sight. During the Beethoven Violin Concerto which Josh plays especially poetically, members of the audience sometimes react spontaneously after the first movement, like meerkats bobbing up for a moment to give a little shriek of pleasure. We appreciate all these outbursts even if they are sometimes unconventional in timing. A public must be allowed to express itself, and Josh lets them, although as alpha-meer, he sometimes holds the audience at bay, and we forge on from one movement to the next uninterrupted. Stray horsetail hairs are found by patrons in row A and picked up as souvenirs. Beethoven's wild sense of joy and demand for punch and clarity causes the demise of many a freshly re-haired bow. We bow together to thank the audience, military precision never an option when the heart is racing, but the joint acknowledgement feels good.
After New York, Boston, Kentucky, Ann Arbor and LA, my time has come. The wait has been at once stressful and exciting. All of the first violins have been asked, one-by-one, to sit on the front stand with Joshua. Trepidation, optimism and a general flurry of support from the whole group makes the experience one to look forward to. Josh wants to get to know us and our playing, and we need to feel his energy close-up to be able to translate it wherever we sit when we rotate within the group. This added incentive has increased our attention to his fingerings, bow distribution and timing. With a player-leader, each member must both become the leader and shadow him. A challenging mix of discretion and initiative. A player-director necessarily moves a lot to activate all corners of the orchestra, from fourth horn one side to timpani and basses the other. The music on the stand is often obliterated, memory recall is crucial and page turning a long-distance endeavour! He also stops playing to occasionally wave the winds into collective action so his 'right-hand man' to his left, must carry on unruffled, naked without his silky sound to weave around, but confident nonetheless. We each have a few minutes of dress rehearsal to get used to our new seat, to the new hall and to our new deskie. Every detail affects comfort. Josh's comfort is paramount and those of us who join him on front stand are acutely aware of this.
The really fun part is his energy. What a joy to give and take from someone so wrapped up in the moment, so fearless and so technically able. There is no hint of ego, not a scrap of bullishness. The music is everything, and that allows a desk partner to risk almost everything – as long as the senses are on full alert at all times. What really surprises me is his responsiveness to his stand partners. Even with all his responsibilities – clear leads, tempi, timing, shaping – he has time to play 'with' his desk partner, naturally responding to microscopic differences in feel, note lengths, volume or articulation, a touch less or more vibrato to match his new companion. I will treasure the Californian concert experience, my favourite moment when Josh has some fun with a bowing and plays several fast up-bows in a row as if to signal the lack of stress that comes from his unquestionable virtuosity. I bravely respond – though the risk is great. In the virtuosity ratings, Bell is dolphin, I am prawn. It is a luxury concert. To all have the opportunity to sit with Josh has brought us closer together as a group and melted away many of the inevitable barriers between leader and section player. Our new director is now aware of the many individual strengths in his group and what technical issues are worth discussing most in the future.
This tour has been emotional: each concert better than the last, each member more convinced than ever that pairing up with Joshua Bell is a masterstroke. The audiences were hungry for us and nothing can be more inspiring for performers. The roar of happy hands before you even start playing and the thunder of disbelief when you finish. Americans are famous for their unabashed and blustery expression when having fun, and it is sympathetic, unbridled, and contagious. Our affection and loyalty for the orchestra and each other is confirmed once more. Touring has rarely felt so good.
Violinist Miranda Playfair has lived in Britain, Norway and Malaysia, is a member of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, associate leader of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and a member of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. She is a professor at the Royal Northern College of Music and runs a festival in Corsica focused on literature, visual arts and music, and the historic ties between Britain and Corsica.