Bell displays characteristic freshness and intensity at Ravinia

Thu Jul 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Joshua Bell performed music of Barber and Ravel with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival.

Violinist Joshua Bell is an artist who never wears out his welcome. A virtually annual visitor to Chicago between appearances at the Ravinia Festival and Symphony Center, he consistently brings a winning combination of formidable technique and fresh ideas to even the most familiar musical warhorses.

Bell’s concert Wednesday night at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by festival music director James Conlon ventured beyond warhorse territory. Conlon programmed an interesting evening, pairing Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal with Shostakovich’s mercurial Symphony No. 9. After intermission, Bell was soloist in Barber’s probing, tune-filled Violin Concerto. And though extra heat from the stage was scarcely necessary considering Wednesday night’s steamy weather, Bell found the fire in Ravel’s gypsy-flavored Tzigane, rapsodie de concert for violin and orchestra.

Now in his mid-40s, Bell retains the easy-going charm that made him a breakout star, a classical musician as comfortable on late-night TV talk shows as on the concert stage. Wearing a short-sleeved black pullover and black slacks Wednesday night, he looked casually hip. But that air of easy confidence only intensifies the impact of Bell’s performance. He is not some exotic creature occupying an exalted realm. Like the master dancer Gene Kelly, he strikes us as an ordinary guy capable of making extraordinary art.

Despite its buoyant closing movement, Barber’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1939, has a dark undercurrent that Bell and the CSO explored with quiet ardor. The sense of longing in Barber’s lyrical melodies was clear, yet each theme retained its innate elegance, thanks to the sensitive balance Conlon maintained between soloist and orchestra. Bell’s tone had a satin sheen that made the intimate conversation between CSO woodwind soloists and solo violin especially expressive. In the final movement, Bell’s non-stop, angular runs were exuberantly prickly.

Tzigane also offered a winning combination of the restrained and the rhapsodic. Not interested in mere flashy display, Bell seduced us with Ravel’s now-languorous, now-torrid solos. Like capricious teen-aged beauties, soloist and orchestra reveled in their shifts from foot-stomping folk tunes to swooning, romantic song.

Conlon and the CSO handled the sharp mood swings in Barber’s School for Scandal Overture and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony with equal grace. A lyrical line and sense of forward motion propelled the Barber overture, smoothing the transitions between its sections of long, arching melodies and shorter, perky outbursts.  The bleak undertow of Shostakovich’s symphony was ever present, whether in the CSO’s sardonic, blustering brass or the slow movement’s restless, haunted melodies.

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One Response to “Bell displays characteristic freshness and intensity at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm by Caroline Siegel

    Bell’s performance was flawless; his sound unsurpassed, however I felt the last movement in the Barber concerto was a bit too fast.
    We lost the melody.

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