Bell and the Academy show themselves simpatico partners at Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

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

Joshua Bell has been playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor since his early teens. The American violinist gave an exhilarating performance of this repertoire chestnut with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Thursday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Clearly Bell has not tired of performing the score.

The violinist received a rock-star welcome from the nearly full house at his initial entrance and  launched into the opening Allegro molto appassionato at a headlong pace. His vaulted singing tone was as potent as ever but he also exhibited an impulsive streak. Unafraid to speed up or slow the tempo as the spirit of the music resounded, Bell’s interpretive choices were always musical and well considered. He phrased the movement’s secondary subject with a rounded grace reminiscent of a bygone generation of violinists.

In recent years, Bell has substituted his own cadenza for Mendelssohn’s original in the first movement. Definitely a virtuosic display, his creation allows Bell to fully unleash his impeccable technique but the cadenza is not totally coherent with the music that precedes and follows at the movement’s end.

Bell assayed the Andante as one elongated romanza but there was intensity beneath the melodic flow, and he brought passion to the central section. The final Allegro was fleet and light as a breeze. Bell’s iteration of the entire score was refreshingly vital.

Bell is the current music director of the London-based Academy and the players seem to have formed a strong musical partnership with the superstar violinist. They gave him well- coordinated support throughout the concerto and applauded him with particular enthusiasm at his repeated curtain calls.

When not playing solo, Bell leads the chamber orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair rather than the podium. (He seemed more comfortable with this arrangement than in previous South Florida appearances.) The concert opened with a bubbly reading of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the two trumpets nicely audible amid the clear instrumental textures.

Playing larger-scale symphonies with a chamber orchestra minus a conductor on the podium has its advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, the smaller forces often replicate the size of the ensemble at the score’s initial performances.  But the lack of strong and detailed leadership can sometimes render a superficial result. Bell’s previous Miami concerts with his ensemble have illustrated these pros and cons. The orchestra gave a solid iteration of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in 2020 but a 2022 Beethoven “Eroica” was matter-of-fact and shapeless.

In the concert’s second half, Bell and his colleagues got most of the big points right in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major. The brass were rock-solid in the slow introduction and. Bell briskly paced the main Allegro ma non troppo. The difficult balances in Schumann’s orchestration were well calculated with winds and brass passages, often obscured in larger forces, well detailed and cleanly executed. Dramatic contrasts emerged boldly underlined.

The rapid tempo of the Scherzo distilled the movement’s manic aura but the trio turned lighter with a touch of charm. Played more as a divertimento than as a statement of drama and catharsis, the third movement Adagio espressivo (in many ways this symphony’s most heartfelt section) was the performance’s major deficit. While lovely and beautifully articulated, the  movement’s anguished romanticism was in short supply.

The rousing opening of the Allegro molto vivace presaged a tightly controlled, exuberant finale with the thematic motifs given space and passion. Blazing brass culminated in a triumphant conclusion, followed by a lengthy ovation.

The smoothness and luster of the Academy’s strings were a consistent asset during the entire concert. This ensemble has continued to maintain the high standards set by its founder Sir Neville Marriner.

Pianist Lang Lang plays Faure’s Pavane, Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Chopin’s Polonaise in F minor and six mazurkas  8 p.m. April 16 at the Arsht Center in Miami.

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Fri Mar 22, 2024
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