Joshua Bell and Academy display fine musical partnership

By David Fleshler

Joshua Bell performed with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Joshua Bell performed with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami.

The star violinist Joshua Bell spent a busy Saturday evening at the Arsht Center in Miami, in which he served as soloist, concertmaster and conductor.

Bell appeared with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the renowned English chamber orchestra that named him music director in 2011. Bell, who will appear with the orchestra Sunday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, conducted from the concertmaster’s chair, using occasional gestures with his bow to guide the ensemble.

But his best effort came in his day job as violin virtuoso, with a blazing performance of Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Bell brought everything to this classic showpiece. He played with sultry heat in the lyrical introduction and brought fire to the chords that crash their way up the fingerboard. Throughout the performance, he played with the precision demanded by this elegant, fastidious music. In the finale, played about as fast as the violin could be played, his bow danced across the strings but seemed to always land where he wanted it, in a crisp account that never became a blur, despite the speed.

Less successful was his performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, which opened the concert. Although he brought to the work a bright, honeyed tone and immaculate bowing, he took such a brisk, light approach that the performance left unexpressed a lot of the joy of the outer movements and the pathos of the slow movement. His bowing was so wispy in the first movement that his sound often blended too much into the orchestra, and many phrases felt shapeless and hurried.

After the Bach, Bell settled into the concertmaster’s chair to lead a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. This early work, premiered in 1800, during a period when Haydn was still writing some of this greatest compositions, combines a Classical musical vocabulary with elements of the bumptious, assertive spirit that was to prevail in so many of the composer’s later works.

Bell chose to emphasize the forward-looking side of the symphony, leading a hard-driving, aggressive performance that gave barely a nod to the Classical-era ideals of taste and elegance. The performance reveled in timpani thumps, sudden emphatic sounds and quick crescendos. Beethoven had written all this into the symphony, of course, but the performance was so emphatic that it felt like the musicians were constantly over-selling the work, grabbing you by the lapels and shouting how great it was, without letting you just experience the music. This approach appeared to find approval with the audience, however, who rewarded it with cheers and a standing ovation.

Gustav Mahler’s string orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, known as “Death and the Maiden,” is a highly demanding work full of exposed passages that can only really be brought off by a top ensemble.

St. Martin in the Fields is a virtuoso orchestra, and the musicians brought clarity, precision and a richness and depth of tone to the performance. The first movement unfolded with a dark urgency and none of the mushiness that could have resulted transitioning spare music for a string quartet to the larger ensemble.

The second movement was particularly notable in the fleet playing of the violins, searing and full of emotion, but light and pointed in tone. The final movement was a turbulent, swirling affair, with passages of quiet menace and brutally crashing chords, a fine and dramatic ending to the concert.

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields perform 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The program includes Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the Brahms Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.; 561-832-7469.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Mar 16, 2014
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