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Dinner Bell

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/06/2004 -  
Claude Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

Joshua Bell (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Roberto Minczuk (conductor)

The 2004 season began with an event both brief and satisfying. The New York Philharmonic occasionally stages what it calls a rush hour concert, beginning at 6:45 and lasting only one hour. The timing allows for commuters to catch both a show and their train and, for the rest of us, offers the opportunity to hear two pieces of music and, even if staying for a prolonged ovation, enjoy a repast without seriously altering one’s circadian rhythms. If memory serves, these truncated affairs have usually been the superior of many of their full length rivals, perhaps because there is no intermission to break the concentrated mood (some would argue that, with the Phil, it is simply a matter of less being more), or because they tend to feature an attractive soloist, the last one in my schedule being the fabulous Kyung-Wha Chung.

Whilst on holiday, I had two experiences outside of the concert hall that centered on Joshua Bell. The first was a rather contentious email from a reader who took exception to my branding Mr. Bell a throwback to the era of Milstein and Elman. My correspondent was quick to point out his own admiration for Bell, but resented what he perceived as my implication that the violinists of the previous era were the betters of our own contemporaries. Although a strong case can be made for this argument, it was not my intention to imply that a golden age was now being succeeded by dross, only that Joshua Bell, with his generous portamento and Romantic sense of phrasing, was a master of emotional string playing in an era when so many are simply dexterous technicians. Additionally, Bell is able to make a direct connection between his e,a,d and g strings and their counterparts in his listeners’ hearts. His espousal of a now revered but rarely performed style of violin playing also creates a sense of nostalgia in the listener, even one who is not old enough to remember the greats of the past. In so doing, he sensitively illuminates the essence of the art of an even earlier supreme fiddler, Fritz Kreisler.

The other recent incident was that some of my friends who stayed in town for the holidays related to me their excitement about the Brahms concerto performed by young Julian Rachlin with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. “Joshua Bell had better watch out!”, one of them stated, elaborating not only on the newcomer’s technique and interpretive abilities but also on his physical attributes, anointing him a strong challenger for the title of new buff and hip classical sensation. There has been a sense for a while in Joshua Bell’s career that, as he matures, a faster gun might appear from out of the West (or, in the case of Herr Rachlin, the East). Perhaps now everyone can settle in and start thinking of him as what he truly has become: one of the most intelligent and communicative artists on the current classical scene.

Bell was totally in command of “his crowd” at this event. There were hundreds of children at this sold-out concert and, even more heartening, about a thousand Gen X and Y’ers. What could have been a jarring experience was actually quite a communal one: even with flashbulbs going off and a huge ovation after the first movement, Mr. Bell never compromised his musicianship by pandering to the neophytes. He acknowledged the applause perfunctorily, but did not encourage it. Instead of going for the splashy gesture, he used his proselytizing opportunity to display his immense talents in a sensitive and intellectual manner, revealing in the process his supreme ability to play eloquently in the piano and pianissimo range. Of course, the Tchaikovsky is a soloist’s dream: the orchestra is mostly an afterthought and Bell kept us all involved (and centered on him) by subtle variations of attack and dynamics throughout the otherwise repetitive passagework. He even made the castaway second movement interesting. Far from guilty of excess or schmaltz, this approach was actually quite restrained, given the sliding style of string play so warm, affable and perfect for such a perfumed warhorse.

The orchestra did get its moment in the afternoon sun with a gorgeous rendition of the Debussy, prepared by guest conductor Andrew Davis for the New Year’s Eve gala with Renée Fleming (the Tchaikovsky was also a Davis retread). Here the shimmering rays, throbbing pulsations and swelling strings were all enunciated passionately and one had the unmistakably delicious sensation of experiencing this first gamelan-inspired European music in all of its timbral glory. The little percussion touches were so delicately struck as to be almost sinful and the entire Philharmonic sound painting was emotive and thrilling, putting the lie to the now common supposition that one can really experience music properly through stereo systems and speakers. If I were to make the argument for the infinite superiority of live musical performance, last evening would have been a good locus to choose for presentation.

The floundering classical community could take a lesson from Joshua Bell. Yes, in order to attract a younger audience, one must appeal to their sense of the moment (he encored a bit of the film music from “The Red Violin”), and a little sex appeal doesn’t hurt either. But once you have lured them in, you had jolly well better give them a quality product or they will never come back. The opposite appears to be the case in contemporary programming philosophy: somehow when attempting to catch the youth wave, the powers that be (many of whom did not study music at university but rather “music management”) assume that only tricks and gimmicks, crossover and highlights, will satisfy the short attention span of the targeted demographic. Let me tell you something, brother, if I were introduced to classical music by Nigel Kennedy, I wouldn’t be in any hurry to return either.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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