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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Concert Review: Follow the Bouncing Bow

Joshua Bell leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joshua Bell leads his troops. Photo by Erik Kabik © 2018 Erik Kabik.
In the years before the 19th century, the conductor standing before an orchestra, baton in hand, was at best an anachronism. In choosing the American violinist Joshua Bell as its music director, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields flew in the face of that tradition. At Monday night's concert at David Geffen Hall, Mr. Bell chooses to conduct most concerts from the concertmaster's chair (in this case, a piano bench) at the front of the first violins. Alternatively, he stood and led with his instrument in hand, using the tip of his violin bow.

This concert, the first in a series of spring orchestral offerings by Great Performers at Lincoln Center, was a welcome return for Mr. Bell, who last led an orchestra at this venue at the helm of a Mostly Mozart performance. Here, he offered a program featuring Mendelssohn, Wienawski and Beethoven: safe and comforting early romanticism, delivered with a smile, professional flair and great beauty of tone from this orchestra, which made its reputation under the helm of its founder, the late Sir Neville Marriner.

The concert opened with the glittering Overture from A Midsummer Night's Dream, played with sweet toned winds, warm brass and a carpet of shimmering strings. Mr. Bell alternated between leading with points and arcs of his bow and playing himself from the first chair, his high, clear violin tone clearly audible above the rest of the small section of first violins. Mendelssohn's orchestral writing is as always clever and pleasing, and Mr. Bell and his players showed their expertise in dancing through the Athenian wood.

Firm taps on the two old-style, shallow kettledrums introduced the Allegro section, and the strings responded to the summons with fleet, unison playing. The strings returned again to the quicksilver call-and-response chords of the opening, with added details from the brass, timpani and wind. Only the slow melody for cellos toward the end found real human expression of the pathos that is hinted at between the four mismatched lovers.

Next up was the Second Violin Concerto by the largely forgotten Polish Romantic composer Henryk Wieniawski. Mr. Bell took the position of a traditional guest virtuoso here, only turning 'round occasionally to cue the other musicians. (They followed the bow of the concertmaster when necessary.) This is a charming concerto that may be less frequently played because of the astonishing difficulty of its solo part, a challenge that Mr. Bell seemed to welcome.

This is bold and energetic music, with rich writing for horns and trombones against the solo part. The violinist draws on the expression and warmth of Eastern European music, playing in the sad minor mode with close-following commentary from the woodwinds. Mr. Bell drew an astonishing range of expressive sounds from his violin, from a singing, lyric tone to more guttural scrapes when the music called for that effect. A stately Andante followed, played without a break. The finale was pure pell-mell fireworks for the soloist, with the orchestra hurrying itself along in pursuit of his bouncing bow.

Mr. Bell was back on his stool for the Beethoven that followed. Symphony No. 6 (the "Pastorale") is the third of these that he has brought to New York. Here, he mostly conducted from the bow, cueing the woodwinds in the opening two movements and leading the country dance with vigor. The storm, incorporating the trombones and timpani, roared and whispered, and Mr. Bell brought out the dark cloud-colors and orchestral lightning strikes. The final movement, with its gentle, singing shepherd's song was particularly well played, with Mr. Bell joining in with his violin for the more delicious passages. 

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