Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields came to Strathmore on Friday April 13, 2012 at 8pm. They were so fabulously pure and good that the rating stars here escaped and filled the sky all the way to musical heaven, where an ecstatically happy and proud Beethoven (hearing restored) is still singing and dancing in approval.
As the smiling and enthusiastic musicians of the Orchestra entered from both sides of the Strathmore stage to take their seats, the audience engaged immediately. A few seconds later, the stage door opened and Joshua Bell appeared. Audiences are accustomed to seeing Bell in concert and recital settings, where he walks to center stage and begins playing with an orchestra or a pianist, but they are not used to seeing him in a chamber role, one which has him performing as part of the orchestra and conducting the orchestra at the same time. In it, he simply walked over and took his place in the concertmaster seat, which on Friday night took the form of a padded piano bench.
The all-Beethoven program opened with the Coriolan Overture, a strong and musically dramatic work that served as the perfect showcase for Bell to demonstrate how he performs in and directs from the orchestra, and for the musicians of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to show off their musical depth, precision and dynamic range. With his shiny straight hair flying, feet stomping, body weaving, and head, eyes, violin, and bow reaching out to every musician in the Orchestra, it soon became clear why Bell was seated on a bench rather than in a chair. The communication and call and response back and forth between the musicians and their new director never stopped for a single second, and the resulting performance was alive and fresh, fascinating to watch, and thrilling to hear.
Immediately following the Coriolan Overture, Bell returned to the stage, this time standing center stage to perform and conduct a sweetly flowing and beautiful performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major. After patiently waiting for late arriving balcony patrons to take their seats, he cued the orchestra, and the music began.
Bell seems to have little interest in conducting, at least in the traditional sense, but his desire to lead is more than evident. He does very little with his hands, arms or upper body, but his facial expressions and head movements are easy to read, and he tends to sway back and forth from side to side in what might best be described as a poetic dance, his intentions at all times clear. Bell chose a very romantic interpretation of the concerto, one which was well suited to his personality, his wonderful lyrical abilities, and his Strad. In an interesting twist that intentionally or unintentionally made clear that Bell’s versatility and musical curiosity is virtually without limit, the bold and charging contrast in the piece came in the form of an extended cadenza composed by Bell.
The second half of the concert featured an exhilaratingly huge and rousing performance of Symphony No. 4, perhaps the best I have ever heard, as if a celebration of the genius of Beethoven and an announcement of what is to come with Joshua Bell at the helm of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. What transpired was a living, breathing, music hall filling classical performance that could not be more current or better conceived.
Following what may have been the most thunderous and extended ovation ever heard at the Music Center at Strathmore, Bell led the fabulous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields musicians in a well chosen and wildly energetic encore performance of the opening movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor.
Score One for Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. They are amazing now and there will be much more to come. You can count on it.
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