Review: Joshua Bell and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Monday, March 21 2016
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Joshua Bell, violin and leader

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (1917)
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto (1878)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 8 (1812)

These days I’m short on cash and even shorter on time, which actually inspired me to attend this concert tonight.  Somehow, splurging $60 that I do not have and two hours that I cannot spare go a long way toward convincing myself that I’m not as poor or busy as one would otherwise believe.  Actually it’s kind of fitting to hear Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky on the heels of my DC trip, since the last time I was in DC was to accompany a friend who idolizes Bell for a concert where Bell played the same concerto.  It’s no mystery why he plays this piece so often–between the visceral virtuosity the piece demands and the garish passion built into the score, Tchaikovsky might as well have written his violin concerto for Mr. Bell.  To the soloist’s credit, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, whatever it is.  The dazzling first-movement cadenza went so well that the audience burst into a standing ovation at its final note, significantly delaying the start of the second movement.  This may have ironically deflated some of the orchestra’s energy, as their playing was palpably more constrained in the second and third movements, but that’s immaterial, as the piece is thoroughly a vehicle to showcase the violinist.  Mr. Bell more than rose to the occasion, projecting tones at times warm and lilting but mostly throaty and tempestuous, all the while maintaining impeccable technical control despite sawing away on his $4 million Strad with so much gusto that one can only wonder how expensive the instrument must be to insure.  Nuance was neither demanded nor supplied, and that’s just as well.

For the symphonic portions of the program, it was quite odd to see Joshua Bell playing sitting down and as part of an orchestra.  Mr. Bell isn’t the first violinist I’ve seen attempting to conduct a Beethoven symphony; Itzhak Perlman conducted Beethoven’s Second with the Philadelphia Orchestra several years ago.  Whereas Perlman conducted from the conductor’s podium, Mr. Bell double-dutied as first violin, gently waving his bow to cue the wind sections when not playing himself.  This is no easy feat, as Beethoven’s symphonies require considerably more coordination than those of Mozart, which is typically where this sort of experiment takes place.  Just as Beethoven’s pastoral Sixth was co-composed with the iconic Fifth, the witty Eighth was co-composed with the life-affirming Seventh.  I had listened to a few different versions of the Eighth on YouTube earlier in the day and found it to be the most Classical (and operatic) of the Beethoven symphonies, full of the kind of humor and joy that permeates much of Haydn’s work.  Mr. Bell and this orchestra, however, played the Eighth as if it were the Ninth–loud, intense, dramatic, thereby losing all of the Eighth’s subtle delights.

As for the opening Prokofiev, it’s not the most comfortable piece for me to listen to.  Though the Baroque-sized orchestra played under a Classical paradigm (the first and last movements follow the familiar sonata form and the third movement is even a gavotte), one can’t help but sense that this is still a 20th century piece with questionable tonality in 18th century clothing.  It’d be easier to listen to an outwardly dissonant piece, quite frankly, though nothing too sinister stood out to me either, so perhaps I’ll revisit the piece at some point and see if I can say anything more constructive about it then.
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