Having the privilege to witness Joshua Bell play is an honor, but to see him play in celebration of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO’s) centennial is a once in a lifetime experience. Growing up as an orchestra kid, Joshua Bell’s was a name that we heard frequently. Releasing his first LP at the age of 18, his astounding musical sensitivity and sheer talent were the driving forces behind countless hours of practice and gymnasium performances. After all, if the kids in Music of the Heart could practice enough to stand next to the likes of Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and, yes, Joshua Bell, so could we.
Seeing him in person for the first time was nothing like I had imagined. The way he moved, the way his fingers (forgive me) flew, the way he constantly tightened his exhausted bow or flipped his hair at the end of each flurry of a passage, all made the man even more of a musical myth than he had been from those elementary school chairs. The man is mesmerizing.
His solos in the Violin Concerto in D Major, opus 35 by Piotr Llyich Tchaikovsky in the end set of the Strathmore’s Gala Celebration were ferocious and raw, while sweepingly lithe and fleeting. The end of Finale: Allegro vivacissimo in particular brought the audience jumping to its feet and kept it there for 10 minutes applauding, all trying to hear this musical prodigy perform one more piece. After five curtain calls between him and the BSO’s wonderful conductor, Marin Alsop, and several handshakes to concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, it became clear we would not hear another piece but the brilliance of the evening we had just heard was hardly diminished. To hear him play an encore would probably been too much, though too much in the best of senses.
While the majority of the concert centered around Bell’s performance, I would be loath not to mention the other, possibly more important, reason for celebration last night: the BSO turned 100 years old. The opening speech gave an impressive list of the BSO’s accomplishments and changes throughout the century. Over 1000 musicians have sat in the ranks of the storied orchestra and the BSO remains the first and only symphony orchestra in the country to be conducted by a woman. This last fact received a stunning round of applause showing the appreciation and admiration Alsop has gained through her years with the baton.
The first set proved instantly why this was the case. The Overture to William Tell by Giaochino Rossini opened with wonderful interplay between and within the instrumental parts. Known mostly for its use in the Lone Ranger series, the Overture to William Tell under Alsop was lively and playful, but also got caught in your throat the way suspense or strong emotion does, keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Finally to close out the set was Also sprach Zarathustra, opus 30 by Richard Strauss. It’s dramatic, suspense building opening was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and still evokes the same levels of awe, foreboding, and conflict of its original composition in 1896 Germany as well as its silver screen adaption.
A musical delight from start to finish, these incredibly talented professional musicians delivered a performance I will remember for years to come. And to have seen Joshua Bell play with all his speed, talent, and control (a speed at which 8th grade me could not have even dreamed of) will rank as a highlight in my life, of that I am certain.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission
Joshua Bell Plays Tchaikovsky played for one night only on February 13, 2016 at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane North Bethesda, MD. For future performances and information: call (301) 581-5100, or check out the Strathmore’s calendar of events.