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20.3.16

Joshua Bell's New Role

available at Amazon
Bach, Violin Concertos (inter alia), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, J. Bell
(Sony, 2014)
When I spoke to Joshua Bell for a 2012 interview, he said he was interested in composition, historically informed performance approaches to early Baroque music, and branching out into other musical areas. At that point, he had just taken up the position of music director for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which he has held since 2011. Based on his performance with the group, heard on Friday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, he has settled quite nicely into his new role.

Bell is the first musician to hold the title of music director with the ensemble since it was founded by Neville Marriner in 1958. He conducts from the concertmaster's seat, playing some of the time and using his bow arm and head to establish tempos and adjust the pulse or give direction. The group moved as one in a crackling, dramatic performance of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture to open the concert, showing all the advantages of a chamber orchestra. With all players considered as equals, including their leader, the agreed-upon articulations were especially crisp and unified and the balances ideally calibrated.


Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, The master as leader and player: Joshua Bell dazzles at Strathmore (Washington Post, March 20)

Charles Donelan, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Santa Barbara Independent, March 14)

Tim Sawyier, Joshua Bell leads ASMF in dynamic performances at Harris Theater (Chicago Classical Review, March 13)

Bradley Zint, English chamber orchestra produces fine night of music (Los Angeles Times, March 10)

Steven Winn, Joshua Bell Needs a Baton to Go with His Bow (San Francisco Classical Voice, March 9)

Timothy Mangan, Joshua Bell and the Academy energize classic program (Orange County Register, March 8)

---, Joshua Bell, violinist, conductor ... (Orange County Register, March 4)
Bell stood in the center of the group to take the solo part in Mozart's fourth violin concerto, an interpretation distinguished principally by the fact that Bell has composed his own cadenzas for this tour, which happens to be the first time he has played the work. In the first movement, Bell seemed a little off his game, uncharacteristically uncertain of intonation and pacing, until he got to that cadenza. He put the themes into polyphonic double-stops, with some high flautando playing and ultra-fast passage work in between, for an extremely virtuosic effect, modeled on the great violin-composers of the past. The trademark Bell sweetness of tone served the second movement exceptionally well, with another short cadenza near the end that put the movement's primary melody against a trill in double-stops, capped by another high, sighing flautando section. All earlier doubts disappeared in the third movement, set at just the right grazioso tempo, again with a little cadenza moment -- a decorated transition that Mozart called an "Eingang" (entrance) -- before each return of the main theme. Before the last return, Bell played a longer cadenza with pieces of the themes wrapped around a continuous drone on one of the strings, a pleasing reference to the use of a drone in the movement.

Mendelssohn's fourth symphony ("Italian") is perhaps the composer's best, tilted as its movements are to quickness and lightness. It is daunting to attempt without a true conductor, but the group played it with perfectly executed coordination. Clean, tight articulation made the subject in the first movement's fugal section ultra-clear, and the timpani had room to thunder in the full, loud sections, a sound that had the booming shock it was meant to have. In the second movement, the viola and bassoon melody was warm and tender, with the flute countermelody standing out when the violins took over the tune. More tempo reserve in the first three movements usually pays off in the Presto finale, which here had to be Prestissimo to make it feel faster than what had come before. To the group's credit, they pulled it off, including some of the most polished horn playing heard in a long time, in both the third and fourth movements. Prolonged ovations earned a rousing encore, the galop-like Molto vivace finale of Prokofiev's "Classical" symphony.

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