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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Concert Review: Live...With a Net

Joshua Bell rings out at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joshua Bell and friend.
 Photo by Eric Kabik for IMG Artists.
The influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on Western music is pretty much incalculable, beyond the words of a mere blog to describe. On Tuesday night, Joshua Bell returned to the Mostly Mozart Festival for an evening celebrating Bach's legacy and influence on three composers who followed him: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

The concert opened with Andrew Manze conducting the Festival Orchestra in the Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C Minor. This is single movement morsel from the same late period that produced Mozart's late symphonies. Its two contiguous movements show Mozart's mastery simple material, transformed, reversed and inverted to generate complex polyphonic ideas. With its clear look back to the baroque era, this little piece offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unknown, of a style change that might have altered the course of Western music had Mozart only lived a few more years.

Mr. Manze then left the stage to allow Mr. Bell to lead the Bach E Major Concerto with his bow. He played with a light and refreshing tone, charming the ear with the many perfections of Bach's musical form and yet finding opportunity for expression and personal statement in each cadenza. Mr. Bell's solo part was expertly accompanied by the string players of the Festival Orchestra, who sounded bright and slightly relaxed. Soloist and tutti delivered a performance full of note-perfect exactness and easy charm.

The next part of the program featured Bach's Chaconne, the 16-minute work for solo violin that is considered to be the pinnacle of the solo repertory for Mr. Bell's chosen instrument. This is the second appearance of the Chaconne on this year's festival programming--an arrangement for solo piano left hand was played a few weeks ago by pianoist Jeremy Denk. Here, the work was presented with a piano accompaniment created  by Felix Mendelssohn, the composer whose actions on behalf of Bach's music included the restoration and performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion for the first time in the 19th century. The performance here featured a transcription for string orchestra of the Mendelssohn piano part, created for Mr. Bell by composer/arranger Julian Milone.

Whether it's Milone or Mendelssohn, the presence of additional instruments in this performance robbed the Chaconne of its sense of sheer daring and bravado. Indeed, the gentle, modest chords and soft string tuttis interjected as if to remind the listener that the soloist was not really at risk, a sort of highly visible musical safety line that undermined the sheer athleticism and thrill of this music.

That's not to say that it is a bad idea to do something fresh with this familiar piece or that Mendelssohn's contribution should be ignored. It's just not as exciting as a solo performance of this nerve-wracking piece. That said, Mr. Bell played with style and flair, executing the most difficult repetitions and variations as if the muted accompaniment never existed in the first place.

The concert climaxed with the last symphonic offering of this season's Mostly Mozart calendar, the Schumann Symphony No. 2. This highly Romantic, emotionally wrought symphony is a weird choice for the last symphony of this festival. Mr. Manze returned to the podium and led a sober, almost restrained performance that captured the meaning and personal weight of these four movements while at the same time showcasing the high level of playing that the MMFO has offered in what has been an exciting festival season.

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