Anthony Marwood: The magic violinist

Anthony Marwood has numerous strings to his bow, including playing on stage in the nude. No wonder he's tipped to be Instrumentalist of the Year, says Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

When the Royal Philharmonic Society names its Instrumentalist of the Year at the Dorchester next week, the recipient of this honour will join a band of living legends including Itzhak Perlman, Julian Bream, Evelyn Glennie and Mitsuko Uchida. The hot tip to win is not yet a household name, but he's a magic name in the business: Anthony Marwood. Who is he? Well, if you consider what this 40-year-old violinist has done in the past year alone, the answer is: quite a guy.

He has brought out two solo CDs, run his annual festival and done chamber concerts galore in Britain, America and India; he's premiered Thomas Adès's new violin concerto at the Proms, become soloist-director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and artistic director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. To cap it all, he also devised a touring exploit for himself - plus three actors, plus an elite group of musicians from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: he would speak and mime and also play the violin in a groundbreaking theatrical version of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, for which his costuming ranged from military gear to dapper City suit to stark naked.

Tall and spare, and producing a sound on his Bergonzi to match his sartorial elegance, Marwood radiates single-minded passion: when he is asked about his beginnings, his story is unassuming. He gravitated late to the violin, at seven. "It was all my siblings' fault. I'm the youngest of four, and they were all playing things," he says. "Music was going on all round the house, and I just got drawn into the cacophony." He progressed routinely through the grades, but when he was 13 he encountered that didactic doyen Emanuel Hurwitz, at the Royal Academy, who became his guru. "One lesson with Manny changed everything. It made me feel everything was fresh. I played Paganini's La Campanella to him, and he said: 'Well, that was quite wonderful.' Then, after a dramatic pause, he added: 'Did you know it was half speed?'" After four intensive years with Hurwitz, Marwood went on to the Guildhall.

His career, he says, has been a slow burn, not meteoric. He toured with his brother and two sisters as the Marwood Ensemble, and was invited to join the Raphael Ensemble as leader. Meanwhile, the work he'd done with the experimental Domus Ensemble led the cellist Richard Lester and the pianist Susan Tomes to ask him to make up a trio, and thus was the award-winning Florestan Trio born.

There had been one major peak in his early years when, at 27, he played Prokofiev's Second Concerto at a Prom. That was, he says, a huge experience, "maybe too soon but a phenomenal thing to do. Ever since, I've longed to go back and do another." Last summer, he did, in a concert that was in other ways phenomenal: premiering a concerto that Thomas Adès had written for him. The idea germinated 10 years ago, when he went to see Adès's opera Powder Her Face. "I was blown away by it. And - you know the way ludicrous ideas sometimes occur - a voice spoke in my ear: 'You've got to ask him for a concerto.' So I wrote and asked him, and he rang me and said: 'Of course I will, but we'll have to wait for the right commissioning bodies to surface.'"

Writing that letter, says Marwood, was like throwing a boomerang, and in time he almost forgot about it. "Then, suddenly, it was on the cards, and the Proms agreed to take it. I started to get bits and pieces in late July, a page or two at a time. Tom wanted to know what it was like to play. Then more pages came; then he had a question about the end of the first movement: he sent me a fax with various alternatives, and wanted to know which were physically possible. It went from the highest point, way off the fingerboard at the top, cascading down in broken ninths to the bottom, then up again, then down again, and so on, very fast, with the journey being slightly shortened each time, till it finally broke up. I couldn't believe my eyes. I decided not to answer the question of whether it was possible - I just decided it would be, somehow. I was determined not to be the man who is laughed at by posterity, like someone saying the Brahms concerto was too hard."

He had less than a month between getting the full score and the concert. "But I'm convinced this is a masterpiece which will stay in the repertoire for ever." He's doing his bit to ensure that: in July, he'll play it at Aldeburgh, and then in Paris and Hamburg.

Marwood's initiation into the Academy of St Martin in the Fields came about by accident, when he was playing The Four Seasons for one of Raymond Gubbay's costume spectaculars. "One of the players was from the Academy, and he told them they ought to have me in, so I did a trial concert with them as director. It felt great, and we agreed to do more together."

Realising the Academy wanted to broaden its appeal, he proposed The Soldier's Tale as a staged theatrical project. The tour was a critical success, and the Academy now plans to take it to America.

Does nothing go wrong in this charmed career? Even his pursuit of the perfect instrument has gone to plan. "One of my friends employed somebody to scout the world for an instrument for me. There are only 50 Bergonzis in the world, as opposed to 600 Strads. But we had a syndicate ready to fund one for me, and when mine came up, we were ahead in the race." It hadn't been played for 50 years. "Initially, I called it the Sleeping Beauty. Now it's waking up."

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