Music News & Reviews

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is a group of singular talents

Julian Rachlin is espousing the virtues of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields when he touches on one of his major challenges working with the group this spring.

"Everyone in the group has equal words to say," Rachlin says of the world's most famous chamber orchestra. "It's not just the director or the guest soloist."

When the London-based Academy comes to Danville's Norton Center for the Arts on Sunday, Rachlin will fill both of those roles: director and soloist.

This is hardly unheard of, particularly in chamber orchestras.

"Ten, 15 years ago I used to not say anything to the orchestra as a guest soloist," Rachlin, 35, says. "I would just stand there and do my thing, and the conductor led.

"It started to become the fashion that chamber orchestras would invite guest soloists without conductors to play certain repertoire, and that is how it happened. Slowly, the orchestra would ask me to lead the rehearsal as opposed to a conductor or the concertmaster. They would say, please share any musical ideas you have."

Leading the Academy on its spring tour, Rachlin has upped the ante, soloing on two instruments: violin and viola.

He'll play violin on Ludwig Van Beethoven's Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major "Kreutzer" for Solo Violin and String Orchestra, arranged by Richard Tognetti, and Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aries, arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov. (Coincidentally, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will play the Piazzolla with the Lexington Philharmonic on April 17 at the Singletary Center for the Arts.)

Then, Rachlin will play viola on Franz Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata for Viola and Strings, arranged by Dobrinka Tabakova.

"The cello is my most favorite instrument," says Rachlin, who started studying viola with legendary musician Pinchas Zukerman in the late 1990s, when he already was an established violin soloist, and he began soloing with the viola in 2000. "It just never happened for me to become a cellist. I always say half-jokingly, but it's really not a joke, that viola is the only realistic approach towards the cello for me. I love the timbre, the sound colors, ... the darker register. I've always been somebody who loved the darker register."

Rachlin now gets to explore the range of the violin and viola with the Academy, which he has worked with for several years now.

With more than 500 recording sessions to its credit, the 50-year-old Academy is the most recorded chamber orchestra in the world, and a classical radio staple on par with The Beatles or Michael Jackson on the pop airwaves. The group's best-selling album is the soundtrack to the 1984 Mozart biopic Amadeus.

The Academy was founded in 1959 by violinist Sir Neville Marriner, who originally led the orchestra from the concertmaster's chair, until he put down the violin to conduct in the early 1970s. In working with the Academy, Rachlin says he can see why the chamber orchestra has endured and remained exceedingly popular.

"It is an orchestra of great tradition," Rachlin says, shortly before a concert Wednesday night in Chicago. "These are all fine players who are absolutely excited about their job. It's not really like a job to them. It seems like enormous joy and pleasure. Forty-five minutes before the rehearsal, everyone is at their stands, practicing like crazy, and also in the hotel rooms, they are practicing.

"It gives you a little insight into how much they treasure what they've built up and they want to keep this amazing quality going."

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