Bell, CSO make worthy case for quintuple-composer “Elements”

Fri Jun 14, 2024 at 12:37 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Joshua Bell performed The Elements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

As awful as it was, the Covid-19 lockdown did have one upside: it gave artists time to conceive new works. While isolating in rural upstate New York with his family, Joshua Bell had the idea to commission a new piece for violin and orchestra—his first in two decades since John Corigliano’s The Red Violin in 2003.

Instead of limiting the project to just one composer, he approached five leading voices in American music to write one movement each for a contemporary response to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Called The Elements, the suiteexpands the four basic elements of Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire to include a fifth—Space. 

The work premiered in Hamburg last September, followed by a U.S debut with the New York Philharmonic. Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert marked The Elements’ local debut under the baton of Juraj Valčuha. 

Despite having five distinct compositional voices, each movement came together in this worthy performance to form a coherent whole, aided by bookending the suite with a short reprise of the first element, Earth. One could imagine individual movements being excerpted successfully or even rescored for chamber forces.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts, “Earth” was the most accessible, focused, and memorable of the five movements, thanks in part to the four-note ostinato that permeates it. Out of the low string ostinato grows a pensive solo violin melody, which Bell played with sumptuous legato and honeyed tone. Copland-like in its evocation of spacious American landscapes, the broad lyrical strokes built slowly into a dramatic inner section marked by increased dissonance and rhythmic complexity. 

Edgar Meyer’s “Water” called for more virtuosic flights of fancy from Bell in its evocation of water as both gentle rain and a surging waterfall. Fiendish passages in the upper reaches of the violin were in danger of being subsumed by the full orchestra at times, and the unfamiliarity of the piece was apparent in a couple of false entrances and slight untidiness. However, these blips were quickly smoothed out under Valčuha’s assured baton and will likely diminish as the run continues.

Jake Heggie’s “Fire” similarly explored the element’s multiple associations as a force of destruction and rebirth and as a metaphor for inspiration. Most known for his operas and art songs, Heggie is rarely showcased in symphonic concerts. “Fire” is more adventurous and abstract than his operatic scores, though it still bears Heggie’s hallmark mix of extra-classical genres, such as tango and klezmer. That said, the fire of inspiration may have been too hot, as he explores too many ideas within a short span.

Jennifer Higdon’s “Air” was a refreshing palate cleanser in its pared-back textures, opening with a duet between Bell and bowed vibraphone. An intimate duet with the harp (guest principal Sarah Fuller) allowed Bell to explore the lower range of the violin, which was a balm after so much high playing in previous movements.

As an accomplished violinist herself, CSO composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery put Bell through his paces in the fifth element, “Space,” particularly in an extended unaccompanied passage marked by disjunct leaps. Flashes of Holst’s The Planets were inevitable but only briefly as Montgomery tried to convey “all of the elements, all of the planets, and all the matter of the universe,” she writes, within a relatively short space. 

Here too, the full orchestra threatened to cover Bell at times, though Valčuha seems to be trying his best to keep a lid on it. When the ostinato from “Earth” returned without pause, it was as if our planet was finally coming back into view—a welcome sight after hurtling through space. 

Although Joshua Bell is as much of a household name as there is in classical music, his playing was never overly showy or ostentatious but was in service to the music at all times. By lending his star power to this inventive work and touring it around the world, he sheds welcome light on five of America’s leading composers.

Juraj Valčuha conducted the CSO in music of Weber and Shostakovich Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

If this concert had a discernible overarching theme, it was whimsy. Before The Elements came Weber’s Overture to Oberon, with its fleet-footed fairies in the flutes and strings played with pinpoint accuracy and fine horn playing from principal Mark Almond.

Shostakovich’s sardonic Symphony No. 1 comprised the second half. Although written as a graduation thesis when he was 18, his compositional voice is clear and recognizable from the first confident outburst. 

The Shostakovich performance brought out the tightest and most committed orchestral playing of the night under Valčuha, the Slovakian conductor making his first CSO appearance since 2017.

Intonation issues threatened the harmonically unstable violin solo in the last movement. That lapse apart, there was some stunning solo work, especially from clarinetist Stephen Williamson, flutist Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, and English horn player Scott Hostetler. 

Given the luxury of space that a symphony confers, Shostakovich was free to fully explore one idea at a time. This fact was all the more striking in relation to The Elements, where the composers perhaps attempted to tackle too many ideas simultaneously within a confined structure.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 

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