The American violinist Joshua Bell has been appointed music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which began life in 1958. He is the only musician to have held the title apart from its founder, Neville Marriner, who stepped down five years ago and becomes the group’s new life president. Bell takes up his post in the 2011-12 season, but has worked with the orchestra regularly since 1986, leading from the concertmaster position or as soloist.
Bell will initially play between 20 and 30 concerts a year with the orchestra and hopes to increase that, but will maintain his other commitments. He said: ‘In the last decade I have been able to pick and choose so I can proportion it the way I want, although I will have to give up certain things.’
The violinist hopes to lead a cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the group as well as modern works such as Piazzolla’s Four Seasons, and to commission new works. He described the way the orchestra plays: ‘They don’t perform in a pedantic, heavy way. There’s a freshness to the way they play together. I’ve enjoyed this part of my concert life more than any other. The players approach the music like chamber music. There’s a core group that’s like my family. In an ideal world we’d be happy with every player and that’s possible with this system.’
Comparing the musicians to others around the world, Bell said: ‘London players are the quickest in the world, with US orchestras close behind. They have the potential to sound like the best in the world. When I play in London I know there’s a certain level that’s going to be there – it’s not going to be a mess. I always feel secure.’
Bell described the difference between leading a concerto from the instrument and being conducted: ‘Good players make good chamber musicians but leading from the violin holds more responsibility. You feel more connected to the orchestra – some conductors even get annoyed with me for communicating directly with the musicians. But I do get more tired when leading a concerto without a conductor because I have to show more physically.’ He is still developing his skills as a conductor, though, as he explained: ‘I’m learning to find the right balance between forcing through my vision of a piece and allowing the players to speak up and voice their ideas. It’s like a chamber music rehearsal. You can’t interpret Beethoven by democracy. Although you can make players feel like it’s their idea!’
Marriner started the orchestra with other players from the London orchestral scene whom he describes as ‘refugees from conductors’. They began rehearsing two or three times a week at Marriner’s home before eventually playing a concert two years later and starting to make recordings. They increased their profile significantly with the 1984 film Amadeus, for which they provided the soundtrack. Bell isn’t daunted by the history of the orchestra, though. He explained: ‘I live in the moment – it’s always about the concert. The history of the orchestra is not a pressure because I don’t think like that. I just need to make sure that the work is first rate.’