Joshua Bell provides new twist on Mendelssohn with PB Symphony

By David Fleshler

Joshua Bell performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Palm Beach Symphony Sunday night at the Kravis Center. Photo: Indiehouse Films

Joshua Bell found a way to inject novelty into the 179-year-old Mendelssohn Violin Concerto: He wrote his own cadenza.

In a performance Sunday evening with the Palm Beach Symphony, the celebrated violinist played his own version of the virtuosic solo interval that traditionally appears toward the end of a concerto’s first movement.

This decision took some audacity: Although many composers, including Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart, left it up to the soloist to write or improvise cadenzas to their violin concertos, Mendelssohn composed his own, with some assistance from the violinist who would perform the work’s world premiere.

Still youthful at the age of 55, Bell delivered a performance of Mendelssohn’s concerto at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach that did the work full justice, in all its pathos, vulnerability and high spirits. He brought an unusually rich tone to the opening melody, which can sound thin in the hands of some. Throughout, he played with smoothness and immaculate technique, bringing limpid clarity to Mendelssohn’s ingenuous melodies and blazing intensity to rapid minor-key passages. Under conductor Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra provided an energetic accompaniment, matching the drama Bell put into the solo part.

Bell’s cadenza was showier than the original’s and made effective use of the concerto’s materials, such as the fiery ascent in octaves at the climax of the solo opening. But the cadenza’s flashy virtuosity seemed out of place in this concerto. And one of the concerto’s greatest moments comes at the end of Mendelssohn’s cadenza, in which a swift succession of arpeggios intensify until the orchestra enters with the main theme. In Bell’s cadenza the arpeggios and arrival of the orchestra seemed merely abrupt and less satisfying than the original.

In the opening melody of the Andante, Bell initially played with a restraint that came off as almost cold. But the effectiveness of his approach became clear as the movement progressed, in the ardor he brought to the ensuing minor-key section and the warmth with which he played the opening theme on its return. He played the last movement with sparkling grace and a bow control that few violinists could match.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, here given an atmospheric performance with misty passages that evoked the Scottish coast, a jubilant middle section and a grim, hard-driving conclusion.

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s game-changing Symphony No. 3, known as the” Eroica,” a work whose breadth, length, grandeur and inventiveness helped jolt music into the Romantic period. Schwarz led a dramatic, full-throated performance, drawing crisp, strongly marked playing. The Palm Beach Orchestra, was at the top of its game, with rich rounded string textures and incisive, sensitive playing in brass and winds.

The opening Allegro con brio captured all sides of this vast musical canvas, with shadowy minor-key passages set against mysterious bleats of winds and brass, strongly punctuated passagework and exuberant playing when the main theme burst out in the full orchestra. Particularly effective was a slow crescendo that led to a whistling, repeated dissonant chord, one of the passages that would have seemed particularly revolutionary to audiences at the work’s 1805 premiere.

The second-movement funeral march showed the string section’s tone at its finest, with grave playing and an emphasis on the downward figures in the lower strings that pull the music into the abyssal depths. After a fleet performance of the Scherzo, notable for the clarity and vigor of its quiet passages, the orchestra plunged into an energetic finale marked by sharply defined fugal passages, mysterious intervals in minor keys and a strong sense of momentum to the triumphant conclusion.

At the concert, the orchestra released some details of next season. The six concerts will include world premieres by Bright Sheng, Gerard Schwarz, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Aaron Jay Kernis. Soloists will include the violinists Akiko Suwanai and Pinchas Zukerman, and the pianists Vladimir Feltsman, Emanuel Ax and Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

The Palm Beach Symphony’s final season concert takes place 7:30 p.m. May 15. The program includes Adolphus Hailstork’s Monuments with trombone soloist Domingo Pagliuca, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 with soloist Maria João Pires and Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Joshua Bell provides new twist on Mendelssohn with PB Symphony”

  1. Posted Apr 17, 2023 at 10:42 pm by Jaime Herrera

    Since nobody is writing great violin concertos anymore, violinists feel obliged to present patches of new material in old masterpieces. It has been done several times with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart’s violin concertos, Beethoven’s violin concerto, and other classic works which we have heard a hundred times. This is a terrific review. Thanks.

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Mon Apr 17, 2023
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