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Back To The Future

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/24/2003 -  
Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Max Bruch: Violin Concerto # 1
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony # 4

Joshua Bell (violin)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

What makes Joshua Bell so appealing as a musician is that he is a throwback to a time when soloists truly enjoyed the music that they were performing and lived for the opportunity to communicate that joy to their audience. Mr. Bell immerses himself in a work, becomes it in a meaningful way, and, when that work is romantic, expresses its inner passions with a decidedly anachronistic vibrato. It takes a lot of gut to play like Joshua Bell, who possesses a marvelous disregard for modern trends of bloodless restraint and questionable scholarship. Hearing this fine artist put his all into the old Max Bruch chestnut last evening at Carnegie was to experience a reawakening of the stirrings of older bloodlines, Mischa Elman or Nathan Milstein redux.

Supported expertly by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, whose strong accenting placed this golden performance in bas-relief, Bell held his encouragingly younger audience spellbound with his deep dive into these swirling waters. Not the most accurate of practitioners, he more than compensates by nimbly extricating the hearts of his fans and attaching them firmly to their sleeves. This is not just passive listening; it is active empathy. Mr. Bell is also a fine chiaroscuro artist, shading delicately and using a wide range of dynamics to enliven the proceedings.

It has taken a while for this reviewer to warm up to new conductor Donald Runnicles, but last night made a believer of me with a beautifully sketched Siegfried Idyll emphasizing that amazingly long Wagnerian melody that is omnipresent yet never outlasts it s welcome. Most impressive in this performance were the inner voices of the strings rising and falling more audibly than in a more pedestrian reading, the St. Luke’s celli especially haunting in their harmonic utterances, which lead to their ultimate championing of that gorgeous melody in its final reprise. The tempo was a bit brisk for my taste, that smoky feeling of mystery somewhat ignored in favor of a smoother lyrical flow.

Bell’s army of children left at intermission (it was, after all, a school night) and thus missed a finely balanced and persuasive Beethoven 4, filled with spirit and infectious optimism. Finding satisfying middle ground between the period instrument lunatic fringe and the overstuffed 100 piece modern orchestra, St. Luke’s is the best example today of rational thought controlling emotional art. The ensemble is small but wiry, the sound muscular and malleable, the communication strong and vibrant. They are, in their own way, throwbacks like Joshua Bell, remembering a time when it was the music that mattered.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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