Bell’s urgent Beethoven draws a crowd at Ravinia

Sat Aug 14, 2021 at 11:46 am

By Tim Sawyier

Joshua Bell performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Ravinia. File photo: Phil Knott

The grounds of the Ravinia Festival were buzzing on Friday night, and it was not hard to guess what drew the crowds. Evergreen violin star Joshua Bell was returning to the festival for the 15th time since his Highland Park debut in 1989, performing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Michael Stern. The audience in the packed Pavilion was treated to a highly accomplished rendition of Beethoven’s exquisite canvas.

The concerto’s first movement is marked Allegro non troppo, though from the outset it was clear this would not be a leisurely reading. Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony and IRIS Orchestra, kept up the momentum in the prolonged introduction, lending urgency perhaps at the expense of breathing room. Bell joined in the impelling approach from his first entrance, and while there were minor ensemble disagreements between soloist and orchestra in the early going, they gelled as the performance progressed.

Bell’s phrasing naturally followed the architecture of Beethoven’s limpid writing, and the pristine tone he elicited from the Gibson Stradivarius was exquisite throughout. He played his own extroverted cadenza, which convincingly mined material from the movement for a brilliant show-off display. The reflective section following this was one of the most effective, as Stern and Bell took their feet off the gas to allow for more meditative spaciousness.

There are performances of the Beethoven Concerto where time seems to stand still in the Larghetto, but such was not the case on Friday. Stern and Bell maintained their fleet approach, which made for less of a successful case here. While Bell’s reading had an organic narrative quality, his solo line in engaged dialogue with the ensemble, the benedictory atmosphere was both lost and missed. There were no qualms to be had in the closing Rondo, however, which was beguiling from all involved. Bell played with ample esprit in this joyful conclusion, and Stern drew matching support from the orchestra. All received a deserved standing ovation after the punctuating final chords.

The program opened with Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat. Cast for fifteen instruments with individual parts, and written in the spirit of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the score represents Stravinsky at his neoclassical peak, retooling historical forms and counterpart in a modern guise. Stern led a taut performance, highlighted by the characterful wind playing of front-desk players Stefán Ragnar Höskulsson (flute), Stephen Williamson (clarinet), and William Buchman (bassoon). As often happens with a work of such small scale in a sprawling outdoor venue, some of Stravinsky’s contrapuntal intricacies were lost in space, but the players’ commitment and expertise nonetheless came through.

Kodály’s gypsy-inflected Dances of Galánta followed the Stravinsky, and the score’s larger forces more amply filled out the Pavilion’s cavernous acoustic. The declamatory opening statements had an assertive, bardic quality, and here Williamson was again a star, delivering the clarinet cadenzas with flair. A particularly sweet oboe solo from principal William Welter led into the breakneck final section, which Stern and colleagues drove to a swirling conclusion.

The CSO next performs at Ravinia 5 p.m. Sunday under George Stelluto. The all-Tchaikovsky program comprises the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the Symphony No. 5, and the 1812 Overture.

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