Think refined British elegance and lush classical sound. This is the reputation that precedes the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the iconic British orchestra founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958. The orchestra’s mission is to take their interpretation of classical music to all parts of the world and they travel widely with fifteen tours a season and over 100 concerts a year. But they haven’t been to Perth for at least twenty years and the sun-deprived Brits are relishing a chance to exchange London’s winter for some of Perth’s glorious February sunshine.

“It will be pretty bleak in London in February and the Perth Festival is so beautiful,” says Gabriel van Aalst, director of artistic planning and operations.

The Australian-born van Aalst was orchestral manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra before relocating to London in 2011 and is the perfect person to quiz on the unique aspects of the Academy.

Gabriel van Aalst
“I get to see them play most – more than anyone else in the world!” he quips.

One of the distinctive aspects of the ensemble is that it functions without a conductor. Marriner established the Academy as a chamber orchestra and it remains conductor-less, even when performing large-scale works like Elgar’s Enigma Variations with 70 musicians on stage.  

 “The eye contact and musicianship required to perform big works without a conductor is noticed by the audience, they can feel the extra frisson,” says van Aalst. “The chamber ensemble feel permeates our concerts and puts a sparkle in the air. It all starts with the rehearsals which involve lots of discussion. The musicians are listened to.”

The orchestra’s management structure is also democratic, operating without a CEO or manager. Van Aalst works with music director Joshua Bell, Marriner, guest conductor Murray Perahia and a committee of players to shape the orchestra’s repertoire. He also liaises with sponsors and booking agents to plan each touring season. It is a lot of stakeholders to balance and must require a large amount of diplomacy.

“Diplomacy is very important,” he agrees, “And my diplomacy skills say don’t talk about it!”

Van Aalst recalls a card he received from Marriner’s wife Molly, who in the early days ran the orchestra from her kitchen table.

“When I joined the team she sent me a card saying, ‘Sometimes you play for love, sometimes you play for money, but you never jeopardise artistic value’. That core value is what unites and gives the orchestra stability.”

                                                                                                                    Sir Neville and Lady Molly

The Academy was established early on as a recording as well as touring orchestra. They have made 500 recordings to date including award-winning soundtracks to films such as Amadeus and The English Patient. The orchestra also operates entirely commercially without any government funding which is rare in the UK. And while orchestras worldwide have suffered from slashed government funding, the Academy’s commercial model has withstood the financial crisis. Three quarters of their income is from generated from artistic activity and one quarter or about £500 000 from corporate sponsors, donors and friends.

The Academy prioritises investing in young talent and has nurtured the early careers of among others the violinists Joshua Bell and Julia Fisher. The Perth tour will be the orchestra’s first concert with rising star Michael Barenboim, the son of conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim. For the past ten years the 27 year old violinist has been concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and his 2013 debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won rave reviews.

“Everything I’ve heard him do has blown me away. It is doubly hard when you carry a name like that because you have to be doubly as good. And I think he is.”

Michael Barenboim
Barenboim will perform the Mozart’s Fourth and Fifth Violin Concertos in two concerts on February 21 and 23. The program will also include Mozart and Haydn symphonies – standard classical fare which will showcase the orchestra’s famous classical era sound. Van Aalst is keen to challenge the stereotype and showcase the orchestra’s versatility so he has also programmed Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings and a bassoon concerto by English composer Judith Bingham.

At nearly 90 years of age Marriner is still involved but Joshua Bell was appointed director of the orchestra in 2011. His first album with the orchestra (performing Beethoven’s Seventh and Fourth Symphonies) debuted at #1 on the Billboard Classical Chart. Van Aalst describes the virtuoso violinist as a near-perfect fit.

                                                                       Joshua Bell

“He has that amazing lush string sound but also a vibrancy; not many are able to straddle both. His Beethoven recordings have lit a fire in the UK music scene. In some ways he and the Academy are like Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in that both are led by a dynamic, engaging violinist.”

The orchestras have a very different sound but Van Aalst says Perth audiences will hear similarities to the ACO. “The ACO is fiery and passionate. The academy is more about long glamorous lines and beautiful full sound. The ACO also makes a beautiful sound, and the Academy can also be robust. The orchestras achieve the same things but in opposite ways.”

Perth International Arts Festival

Program 1
Fri 21 Feb, 7.30pm
1hr 50min including interval
BRITTEN Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 4
STRAVINSKY Concerto in D
HAYDN Symphony No. 45 Farewell
Artist Talk: Fri 21 Feb, pre-show at 6.30pm in foyer

Program 2
Sun 23 Feb, 2pm
2hrs including interval
ELGAR Introduction and Allegro
BINGHAM Bassoon Concerto
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 5
BARTOK Divertimento for Strings
MOZART Symphony No. 29
Artist Talk: Sun 23 Feb, pre-show at 1pm in foyer