"What's the weather like now in Southern California?" asks Sir Neville Marriner from his London home, sounding eager to return for a visit with his celebrated Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields tonight and Saturday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.
After all, the knighted musician is no stranger to these parts. In 1969, he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and was a jaunty, enlivening force on the Southland scene ("which I loved") for a decade.
This musical adventurer has had his hand in many different enterprises, his route taking him from violinist with the London Symphony to early-music specialist to chamber-group leader to maestro of a major orchestra to opera conductor.
But no matter where he goes, he said, "my first loyalty is to the academy," the first chamber ensemble he founded and the only one he has stayed tied to all this time. Under his leadership, it has long been the most recorded orchestra in the catalog, and although its members are independent-minded, they are no match for Marriner when it comes to candor and self-mockery.
A sample, regarding his 1987 guest spot with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera: "I was not thrilled with my performance of 'Cenerentola.' The director [Frank Corsaro] and I didn't get along. He wanted something too down-market for my taste, something in the vein of a Broadway musical.
"But geriatrics like me tend to be highly desired by managing directors," Marriner, 73, continued. "They keep preferring us over the younger ones who really want and need the opportunities."
Those opportunities include invitations to conduct most of the world-class orchestras and the "Big Five" American ones.
Why not No. 6--the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
"Oh, well, Ernest [Fleischmann, the L.A. Phil's general director] and I have an old antipathy," he said. "We knew each other long ago when he was a mere secretary at the London Symphony and I a mere violinist. Also, we became economic rivals when I led the L.A. Chamber--each of us trying to pick the same patrons' pockets."
With Fleischmann poised to leave the Philharmonic, that rivalry may become academic.
Meanwhile, Marriner doesn't accept most opera bids for one reason or another and laughs at the circumstances that make it so.
"For one thing," he said, "I get restless with the schedule, which has a three-day lapse between performances. It's so long I'm kicking my heels waiting for the next one. And then, of course, opera, requiring a six-week chunk of time, isn't an easy fit on my calendar until after 2001."
Marriner said he loves doing music dramas, but when the Metropolitan Opera calls him, it's for "the thinner, really threadbare repertoire like Cherubini and Haydn, the creaky things with no plot and characters drifting around the stage singing incomprehensible words."
Operatic antiquities are not the sole province of Marriner's sport, however. His affectionate fun making also takes aim at himself and the academy (which is neither an academy nor situated in any fields).
"When we began 45 years ago, we called ourselves 'refugees from conductors'--musicians who were sick of the stick in our faces."
They were conductorless at first, but soon, and with encouragement from conductor Pierre Monteux, Marriner took the podium and has been there ever since.
"But just to prove they can live without me," said their puckish leader, "they played the soundtrack for 'The English Patient,' under the composer [Gabriel Yared]."
And at Marriner's prodding, the orchestra is always rising to new challenges.
"Now, our modus operandi is change," he said. "We can do any repertoire and shrink and expand as needed--even up to 90 players--because no one has a contract or security, just better pay than anywhere else--young freelancers who like to live dangerously."
The tour ahead--six concerts from Cerritos to San Francisco--provides a perfect opportunity to assess new players, Marriner said, "for their ability to integrate with the ensemble, but most of all to see if I can bear to spend so much time with them!"
* Neville Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. Tonight's program: Suppe's "Morning Noon and Night in Vienna" Overture, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (with soloist Leila Josefowicz). Saturday: Rossini's "Semiramide" Overture, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A and Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor. $10-$68. (800) 300-4345.