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Crossing Jordan

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
03/19/2018 -  & March 16 (La Jolla), 18 (Newark), 24 (Sarasota), 2018
Felix Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21
Henryk Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68

Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell (violin and conductor)

J. Bell

“This splendid movement is generally taken too slowly. Beethoven marked it Andante molto moto...The image of the flowing brook must be maintained throughout.”
Felix Weingartner
“Those damn cuckoos!”
Leonard Bernstein
“River Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.”

Although there is perhaps no particular need for another conductor at present, many aspire to the role. One of the applicants who is progressing nicely is Joshua Bell, who is clearly qualified to be an aspirant. Appointed as music director of the Academy of the St Martin in the Fields ensemble in 2011, he is diligently pursuing his new craft, although still clinging to his violinistic virtuosity, becoming a double threat on any particular evening.

This current program began with the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sitting in the first chair, Mr. Bell played well and occasionally looked at his orchestra and raised his bow to sworn double duty as a baton. This technique harkened back to the seventeenth century and was permissible in a small work, but tended to place the leader/soloist in the awkward position of follower rather than leader. Perhaps as a consequence this rendition was ragged on its edges, transitions between subjects a bit blurred. Overall not a crisp start to a program. I half expected Mickey Rooney to come out in his diaper to apologize.

If anyone was ever destined to be a musician it was the violinist Henryk Wieniawski. His mother, uncle and brother were all well-known pianists – even his daughter Irene was a composer of songs – and he was selected to tour with the composer/pianist Anton Rubinstein, with whom he performed the Kreutzer Sonata more than seventy times on an American tour in 1872. Like Oscar Wilde reading poetry in Colorado mining towns, Wieniawski continued his Wild West concertizing even after Rubinstein went home, touring rugged spots in California before heading back to Europe. His Second Concerto has attained ubiquitous popularity and nobody performs it better than Mr. Bell.

The Wieniawski is a fluff piece and, as a result, came off as the best of the evening. Now standing in front of the ensemble as the soloist, Mr. Bell electrified with his virtuosity, mastering the difficult runs with seeming ease. After the middle movement there was thunderous applause, which our soloist handled with aplomb (clearly this was not his first time in this particular barrel).

Finally the Beethoven. One would have expected that Mr. Bell would actually stand up in front of his orchestra for this seemingly easy but actually very complex work, but no, he sat in that first chair again, playing a fine concertmaster but a deficient leader. It takes quite a bit more to mount a “Pastorale” performance than simple panache. Bell missed a golden opportunity to shine in three different guises by abandoning his leader position for an occasional wave of his bow.

The result was predictable. Although the ensemble shone during the “merry gathering of peasants”, performing both fast and delightful, the remainder of the effort was ragged, featuring many missed notes and inevitable brass flubs. All in all, a bit embarrassing, however the almost sold-out crowd loved every minute of it, judging from the excited applause. Mr. Bell’s cult of personality seems to have won the evening but there must come a time when fine musicianship overtakes his hogging of the spotlight.

This particular Joshua has now crossed his Jordan, demonstrating not only facility but also the seeds of maturity. It remains to be seen how this battle of Jericho will ultimately be resolved. We wish him well and suggest that, like Lorin Maazel or Jaime Laredo, he sometimes appear alone on the podium for an entire concert and leave his fiddle behind.

Fred Kirshnit



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