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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Concert Review: Bowing to His Own Beat

Joshua Bell leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Follow the leader: Joshua Bell (standing, center) leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall. Photo by Ian Douglas © 2015 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
What is the role of a music director? Is it necessary for them to be in white tie and tails in front of the orchestra, slashing the air with a white baton to direct the players, a set of gestures that can have the unintended effect of hypnotizing the audience who think that their job is to watch the conductor?

On Monday night, violinist-turned-music director Joshua Bell and the London-based chamber orchestra the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields offered some new answers to these questions in a concert at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall. The concert, part of this year's Great Performers subscription series, featured Mr. Bell leading two symphonies from the first violin chair along with a performance of Tchaikovsky's evergreen Violin Concerto with himself cast in the role of conductor and soloist.

Conducting an orchestra with the bow of a violin is a tradition older than the use of a baton, dating back to the 18th century. In these performances, Mr. Bell played enthusiastically in the first violin section, working closely with his actual concertmaster  and occasionally relying on that musician to cue the players when his own hands were busy. He did point and gesture on occasion, but these moves were far from those of a traditional conductor: there was little suggestion of meter or beat from the waggle of his bow.

When the audience arrived on Monday night, a change of program was announced. Violinist Pamela Frank, who was scheduled to join Mr. Bell in Bach's Concerto for Two Violins had bowed out due to injury. (According to a source, the cause was a broken wrist.) A piece of printed yellow foolscap informed the audience that  Bach had been replaced with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, the so-called "Classical" Symphony, which would precede the planned evening of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. To be fair, that information was already available on the Lincoln Center website.

Mr. Bell led his players in a vigorous account of the Prokofiev First, capturing the acid wit and neo-classical mannerisms that characterize this popular symphony. Throughout, theres the slight sense that the young composer is messing with his audience through the art of pastiche, taking the genteel melodies of Mozart and Haydn and putting them through a maze of fun-house mirrors. Acerbic commentary from the double reeds was answered by sarcastic bleats in the horns and shrill chords from the small violin sections, one of which was led by Mr. Bell. The violinist occasionally lunged and gestured to his players with his bow, but seemed mainly focused on his instrument, happy to provide the beat with the up-and-down motion created as he played.

The violinist stood for the second piece, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. This was an ardent and warm account of this difficult and highly imaginative work, an outpouring of lyric Russian romanticism. The long cadenza passage was Mr. Bell's show, and the smaller-than-usual orchestral tutti made his solo violin stand out all the more. The lyric slow movement featured his signature tone, figuring over the gentle accompaniment. Fireworks burst from his instrument in the brilliant finale, although the packed house seemed disappointed that he did not offer a solo encore.

Their disappointment was alleviated by the madcap performance of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony that ended the concert. This is one of the most misunderstood Beethoven works, as its deep musical humor is often dismissed as mere tomfoolery, a trifle between the giants of the Seventh and the Ninth. Here, Mr. Bell and his little group made a strong case for its obsessive use of rhythm, with the whole symphony built around a stuttering motif that colors all four movements. The brilliant Adagietto, with the strings evoking the ticking of a metronome gave way to a delightful Minuet and a helter-skelter finale that romped home in a series of crashing chords.

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