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Los Angeles Festival : Musical Rounds Of A Knighted Marriner

September 18, 1987|DONNA PERLMUTTER

When he left here 10 years ago, eight seasons after launching the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and--before that--having made an international name with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner set out bravely to conquer the symphonic world.

No more Baroque scholarship. No more Classical miniatures. No more da camera settings. With encouragement from admirers like Ronald Wilford, the king-maker of conductors at Columbia Artists Management, Marriner was going to try his baton on the big, heroic endeavors--from Brahms to Strauss and Mahler.

It was goodby Los Angeles, hello Minneapolis. To become music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. To trade his renown for experience with the 19th-Century repertory. To move up the scale, possibly, to a more prestigious post.

Now he's back in Los Angeles--this time to make his U. S. operatic debut, conducting Rossini's "La Cenerentola" for Music Center Opera (opening tonight). In 1987, a decade later, Sir Neville has come nearly full circle.

Did Marriner's odyssey--which has now put Minnesota behind him in exchange for a post with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony--yield the new musical identity he hoped it would?

"I can't say that," Marriner admits, unhesitatingly.

"But I've discovered what I wanted to about myself. Namely, that there are some things I do better than others. If I were Jewish and neurotic, for instance, I surely would be better equipped to conduct Mahler.

"Flamboyance doesn't come naturally to me. Maybe I have a hard time saying what I feel. But that doesn't mean I don't feel. . . . "

Poolside, at an idyllic Trousdale Estates guest house, Marriner pores over the score of "Cenerentola." At 63, the knighted Englishman musician whose recordings now number more than 400--ranking him, according to his management, "the world's most prolific classical recording artist,"--makes business and pleasure look almost synonymous.

He throws a jacket over his swim shorts and puts aside the score. Los Angeles, he says, is a favorite spot and now he is having a reunion, in the orchestra pit, with some L.A. Chamber Orchestra members. The L.A. Philharmonic, however, remains distant from Marriner's purview--despite regular appearances with other world-class orchestras. His only engagements with the Philharmonic took the form of "Messiah" and Gilbert & Sullivan evenings in Hollywood Bowl, during one week in August, 1971.

"Ernest (Fleischmann) and I have an old antipathy," he says of the Philharmonic's executive director, recalling when "we knew each other long ago.

"He was a mere secretary at the London Symphony and I was a mere violinist . . . which makes for a strange friendship. It's difficult to talk seriously about our musical aims.

"Also, when I directed the Chamber Orchestra, we were economic rivals--each trying to pick the same patron's pockets. Even if he were to invite me here, I don't think I have two free weeks before 1992."

The route Marriner has taken--from violinist to early music specialist to chamber-orchestra leader to major conductor--gives him an uncommon perspective. And his candid, jaunty attitude lets him admit that he "pulled off a 'Boheme' 10 years ago." "Like Danny Kaye, I gave an impression. But it's not an approach to admire. I like the basic technique to be in place, the kind necessary for crafting a fine urn.

"With anything Romantic, it's possible to crash in at the top, to forgo balanced and tuned winds, controlled and warm violins, mellow brass. But it's like wallpapering over a rotten room. I don't like it."

As for adopting a podium style suitable to the emotionally stormier music that follows Mozart and early Beethoven, Marriner--whose profile has always been one of elegance--says he "openly despises" what he calls "choreographobantic conducting. Players want precise direction. It's the audience that needs to see a score acted out by the maestro.

"Probably, though, my manner inhibits musicians. Have you ever noticed how the winds are heard better when they have an overhead light thrown on them? A conductor can have the same effect on an orchestra."

The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields represents Marriner's expertise. Neither an academy, nor located in any fields, the ensemble seems to be one of the few constants in his musical life. He says he will give up Stuttgart following a United States tour in 1991 and focus his ambitions on a newly augmented Academy, one that will perform the full symphonic repertory and allow him "to practice the arrogance of others who won't admit they can't do everything."

No matter how clear-eyed he may be, Marriner's buoyant spirits keep him looking up. "I'm not finished discovering everything yet," he says. "Music is an eternal adventure."

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