Joshua Bell leads ASMF in dynamic performances at Harris Theater

Sun Mar 13, 2016 at 10:26 am

By Tim Sawyier

Joshua Bell performed as soloist and conductor with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Saturday night at the Harris Theater
Joshua Bell performed as soloist and conductor with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Saturday night at the Harris Theater.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) performed at Harris Theater Saturday night under their music director, violinist Joshua Bell. While the evening’s repertoire was routine, the performances were anything but, featuring inspired artistry and superlative playing from Bell and the storied ensemble.

The program opened with Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, which Bell led from the concertmaster seat. The chamber music sensibility this setup fosters was abundantly apparent—the musicians were clearly engaged in collective interpretation and played with a free élan guided more by their ears than eyes.

The opening Allegro con brio bubbled with energy from the opening arpeggiations to its incisive final bars. Tender elegance pervaded the Larghetto, which was laden with organic dynamic shifts and resonant soft dynamics that never sounded anemic. The boisterous Gavotte benefited from dance-like inflections, with the slight hesitations on upbeats providing a satisfying lilt. In the finale the ASMF musicians played with effervescent joie de vivre, and buoyant woodwind solos sparkled throughout. Bell’s subtle leadership was unobtrusive, conveying much through his energetic presence and playing.

Bell took center stage following the Prokofiev for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, of which he gave an impassioned performance. Bell’s reading of the first movement had a breathless urgency and forward momentum, which–while not necessarily in line with the movement’s Allegro moderato marking–made for thrilling listening. The familiar cadenza sounded fresh and improvisatory in his hands, its stratospheric harmonics sounding with effortless poise.

After the Canzonetta’s glowing wind introduction, Bell offered a songful rendition of ruminative anguish that did justice to the composer’s homesickness at the time the music was penned. The finale was taken at a breakneck pace, soloist and orchestra jointly navigating its transitions and tempo shifts deftly, and earning an immediate standing ovation after the electrifying coda.

As an accompanying ensemble, ASMF handles like a Maserati. One of many examples of this occurred in the concerto’s first movement passages where the orchestra has isolated offbeats under rapid runs in the violin. In conducted performances these spots can find the orchestra tensely at the ready waiting for cues from the podium, while ASMF simply placed the punctuations where they belonged with little apparent effort, aurally following their director’s lead.

Following intermission Bell remained in the solo spotlight for the slow middle movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, which was played with Benjamin Britten’s codetta. Principal cellist Stephen Orton’s solo playing in the opening had a supple vocal quality, and his sensitive dialogues with Bell were a moving embodiment of the ensemble’s collaborative spirit.

A riveting performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 rounded out the night with Bell back in the concertmaster spot. The players lived up to the first movement’s Allegro vivace con brio marking playing with incendiary energy and emphasizing Beethoven’s jagged dynamic juxtapositions. The playful Allegretto scherzando, an homage to the inventor of the metronome, was coy and drew more understated leadership from Bell.

The spacious Tempo di menuetto had a rustic Ländler feel, its trio showcasing burnished playing from the ASMF horn section and exquisite solos from principal clarinet Nicholas Carpenter. The Finale’s headlong gusto emphatically closed the evening, which like the ensemble itself was even greater than the sum of its parts.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment