Bell and Meyer open Festival Miami’s classical events in populist style

By Lawrence Budmen

Joshua Bell performed Edgar Meyer's Double Concerto with Meyer Friday night at Festival Miami.

Joshua Bell performed Edgar Meyer’s Double Concerto with Meyer Friday night at Festival Miami.

Festival Miami, the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s annual showcase, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary on Friday night. The festive concert brought the bonafide star power of violinist Joshua Bell to the Gusman Concert Hall stage in collaboration with double bassist-composer Edgar Meyer and conductor Thomas Sleeper and the Frost Symphony Orchestra. Meyer’s Double Concerto, written for Bell and himself, received its Florida premiere and proved a surefire crowd pleaser.

Meyer is a musical chameleon, equally at home playing chamber music, world music or country in Nashville. His concerto reflects his far-ranging musical influences.

Cast in three movements, the score mixes neo-classicism and bluegrass elements. The concerto opens with a repetitive minimalist figure in the strings, over which the violin plays a soaring, expansive melody. The bass provides a mostly gruff undercurrent to the violin line, only briefly taking the melodic lead.

Layered string and harp textures dominant the second movement with the violin singing a folksy Americana theme in the manner of Mark O’Connor. A rapid hoedown figure dominates the finale, providing a virtuoso workout for the soloist. An austere Copland-like hymn tune repeated by the strings and winds imaginatively  morphs into a fugue amidst an orchestral jam session prior to a low-key coda dominated by the soloists.

The concerto’s only weakness is the under- developed bass part which seems, at times, to be a mere adornment to the solo violin. While the score is not deeply profound, it is wonderfully entertaining. Meyer’s orchestral writing is elegant and sophisticated and he can spin a real melody without sounding derivative. This concerto should become part of the standard contemporary repertoire.

After phoning in a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto last season in Miami with the Cleveland Orchestra, Bell was back in top form Friday night. His refined, sweet tone took wing in Meyer’s melodic flights but he also produced a leaner sound in tuttis with the orchestra and imbued even the most repetitive episodes with élan. Bell’s high-octane reading of the finale produced plenty of virtuosic heat, his technique still pristine and dynamic.

Meyer is a consummate musician and his nimble articulation of the bass line deftly matched Bell’s finely honed performance. Sleeper and the reduced orchestra provided stellar support, the harp and wind solos beautifully assayed.

The program commenced with the premiere of Celebration March by Joel McNeely, a UM graduate and veteran Hollywood composer. With a spacious martial melody in the John Williams’ Star Wars manner, the piece was an appropriately rousing opener.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was a fine showcase for the Frost Symphony Orchestra. The strings’ luster and hair-trigger accuracy were impressive. Fine clarinet and bassoon solos and whipcrack trumpets and percussion rode the big climaxes. A few burbles aside, the treacherous horn solo of the second movement was well played. Sleeper conducted with his accustomed fervor, maintaining fine control over the changes in meter and bringing nicely varied dynamics despite the hall’s live acoustic.

Festival Miami continues 4 p.m. Sunday at UM Gusman Concert Hall with Gary Green conducting the Frost Wind Ensemble. The program includes  Martin Patterson’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Michael Daugherty’s Labyrinth of Love with soprano soloist Hila Plitmann. 305-284-4940;

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Sat Oct 5, 2013
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