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16.4.12

Joshua Bell Leads Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Friday evening, in the Music Center at Strathmore, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields was led by its new music director, Joshua Bell, with violin in hand to a sold-out house. Tickets were especially prized since in addition to the Coriolan Overture and Symphony No. 4, the all-Beethoven program included the Violin Concerto in D major, with Bell as soloist.

This venue arguably has the loveliest acoustic in town, which in the punctuated opening of the Coriolan Overture, showcased the chamber orchestra's warm, smooth tone, deftly increasing in resonance when the repertoire demanded forces of a full orchestra. Bell left the concertmaster's chair to stand front and center for the concerto, conducting with his bow and playing during the first orchestral tutti.


Other Articles:

Joe Banno, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell (Washington Post, April 16)

David Patrick Stearns, Violinists as conductors: Who needs a baton when a bow will do? (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16)

Allan Kozinn, A Violinist Wielding Both Bow and Baton (New York Times, April 13)

David Mermelstein, Bell Epoque (Wall Street Journal, April 9)

Anna Picard, Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell, Cadogan Hall, London (The Independent, April 8)

Guy Dammann, Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Bell (The Guardian, April 6)

Edward Seckerson, Independent podcast: Joshua Bell - Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (The Independent, March 26)

Charles T. Downey, Joshua Bell: Unrepentant Romantic (Ionarts, January 11)
Once Bell became violin soloist, he played with expressive nuance, but his clever, agile playing was often at odds with the predicable playing of the orchestra, who without a conductor maneuvered like the Titanic. Without a conductor to provide focus, the chance of coordinated musical spontaneity or surprise was remote. Over the course of the concerto, Bell increasingly tempered his creativity to keep an adequate level of ensemble. No longer held back by the orchestra, Bell was most free in the cadenzas he had written, with chordal material perfectly tuned.

In fairness, the ASMF musicians spun out gorgeous slow movements. The gentleness of the Adagio from the fourth symphony was most memorable, as were the savvy bowings in the Allegro Vivace third movement that caused phrasing to come about automatically -- likely a perq of having a violin virtuoso as Music Director. Treacherous moments in the excitingly complex final movement sounded meticulously rehearsed. The timpanist was smartly placed in the back corner with a direct sight-line to Bell in the concertmaster's chair.

While it seems like a horrific crime to suggest that Joshua Bell ever lay down his violin, this will be necessary for him to truly be music director of this staid ensemble through its next five hundred recordings and rigorous tour schedule. Academy founder Sir Neville Marriner spent the first decade of his music directorship with fiddle in hand (as Bell is now attempting) before putting down his violin, perhaps in artistic frustration, for the podium. Without a serious conductor, one would hate to see this ensemble go through a decline similar to that of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Let Maestro Bell's incubation period as a conductor begin, with the secret hope that he will soon realize that audiences and directors of artistic planning of major orchestras will sadly balk at the opportunity of just seeing the back of his head.

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