Another string to his bow

“I wanted to make a statement, to go in headfirst.” So says American violinist Joshua Bell, who this season becomes the second music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the London-based chamber orchestra founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958 that played an important role in the resurgence of baroque music performance in England.

Bell will start his tenure with a European tour that launches this month in the UK. The ensemble will be tackling Beethoven and Mendelssohn symphonies, and playing Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, while the first in his new edition of Beethoven Symphonies with the ASMF comes out on Sony next February.

“Over the years I’ve watched so many conductors tackling these symphonies. I’ve been dying to get my hands on them,” he says.

As music director, Bell will be leading from the principal violinist’s seat. The role of director-from-the-violin pre-dates the age of the conductor; for Bell, it couldn’t be a more natural way of leading. “How I communicate doesn’t matter, it’s what I communicate. Some conductors just use their eyes, for example. I’m interested in developing a language of gesture. Sometimes I pick up the bow and conduct, which is more natural to me than a stick.”

The ASMF first played as a string orchestra at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. At one time it existed as a large symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra and small ensemble, but now only in the latter two forms.

Bell might seem an unlikely heir to the redoubtable Marriner. Now 88, Marriner was an orchestral player with a brilliant entrepreneurial streak, who turned a London freelance ensemble into an international brand; Bell, a youthful 44, has spent his career as a front-rank virtuoso. He lives in a Manhattan penthouse, owns a legendary Stradivarius, jams with Chick Corea and James Taylor, drives a Porsche 911. Quite where a London freelance band fits in might be hard to see.

Bell explains that his relationship with the Academy has been developing for more than 20 years. They have form: his 2004 recording The Romantic Violin, which sold 5m discs, was a joint project.

“We’ve played together, toured together and our rapport became stronger through Beethoven, actually. Now it’s a relief to have the real responsibility, to be able to lead and to rehearse every corner I want to. I approach it as chamber music; they, in turn, have a chamber music crispness and energy to their performance, everyone is involved – it can be a lithe animal, very powerful and streamlined.”

He’s taking over at a critical point in the Academy’s history. Marriner’s effective management and transparent, virile string sound made ASMF the UK’s most successful recording and touring band for decades. Five hundred recordings later, the scene has radically changed: in its core baroque and classical repertoire ASMF is in competition with London’s many period instrument ensembles and a new generation of chamber orchestras. Recording and session work is scarce; the ensemble lacks a London home and foreign tours dominate the diary.

For the ASMF’s principal first violin, Harvey de Souza, Bell is the ideal director. “Firstly, Josh is super-talented. Secondly, his powers of communication and sheer dynamism mean he’s confident enough to lead the big stuff. That sets him apart from most violinists.

“He can direct Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony from the front desk, then stand up and give an incredible performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto ... He can be restless and over-committed, but with the violin in his hands his focus is laser-like.”

De Souza and Bell have known each other since they were teenagers (“back then we played snooker in south Tottenham joints till 3am”) and will share the front desk on the forthcoming tour. The ASMF will benefit from Bell’s competitiveness (he was a tennis champion as a boy, and remains a keen golfer, computer-gamer and gambler), as well as his prestige and connections. But the violinist has deeper reasons for taking on a British orchestra: “London is something of a spiritual home for me,” he says. It was here he began recording with Decca in the 1980s, and befriended the cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom he’s collaborated on a host of chamber projects. Like many of Bell’s musical relationships, this friendship has proved to be enduring. Which is what the Academy of St Martin will be counting on, as it pitches for survival as a 21st-century ensemble.

ASMF’s tour begins on October 14.

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