Celebrity Series of Boston brought the stellar Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields to Symphony Hall Sunday for its 13th rewarding visit. Superstar violinist Joshua Bell took on the leadership in 2011 at the conclusion of founder Neville Mariner’s 53-year run.
I remember the awe that struck me on first hearing their recording of Handel ballet music on an Argo Lp (ZRG 686, ©1972 – still have it!) broadcast by WCRB in the good old days of that station. As soon as I could I rushed over to The Coop and Helga Newcomb pulled it off the shelf and handed it to me. My admiration for ASMF/Marriner’s music-making grew and grew as I listened to this amazing recording at home. What precision, what tone, what panache, what sheer perfection! Of course the early-instrument phenomenon had not then fully taken hold around here, and the opulence of these performances achieved a truly narcotic stature. Those qualities survive to this day.
The brisk and highly entertaining opener, the Overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville. needed a bit more bass sonority. Four cellos and two basses — all fabulous players — might have underpinned a bit more deeply had their numbers reached five and three. Nevertheless this provided sparkling and appetite-whetting aperitif before the rarely-encountered, richly flavorful, and piquantly seasoned Violin Concerto by Dvořák.
Written in 1878/9 for the famous virtuoso Joseph Joachim, the admittedly challenging work wasn’t premiered until October 30, 1891, and then by Max Bendix and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Theodore Thomas. A glance at the score discloses very few moments where the soloist doesn’t play, and his part is hardly easy. It abounds in double-stops, large leaps in melodic line, and runs the gamut of emotions. Apparently Joachim had many “second thoughts” about the score and ultimately never did it. “His loss,”one is tempted to say.
Joshua Bell has soloed in and simultaneously led a violin concerto in his past several visits here with ASMF; their Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concerti still ring wonderfully in my memory. What a challenge it must be to conduct successfully while also soloing in these concerti. Think of the disparate disciplines, the combined concentrations. It must be daunting. Yet, Bell never shows strain in his double role, he always appears in complete control of his players and his gorgeous 1713 Huberman Stradivarius.
One admires in Joshua Bell on many levels, especially his unerring accuracy and beauty of tone across his instrument’s entire range. We are living in an age of many truly gifted violinists, but of them all, Bell has the most meltingly beautiful tone when he soars high above the staff. In search of an apt descriptor, the word heavenly comes to mind. Yes, I know, but it really is that beautiful and transporting, especially in the Dvořák’s Adagio – ma non troppo second movement.
A real test of a successful performance of this piece comes in its finalé, marked Allegro giocoso ma non troppo. Bohemian high spirits abound, with lots of two-against-three sprung from traditional dance rhythms. Bell and his colleagues set off on a lively pace, which slowed only when asked by the composer to do so at a few poignant moments. Virtuoso challenges abounded and were met, and the excitement built as the end approached. With four spiritedly accented chords, the concerto came to a triumphant close. Applause commenced, and from both sides of the stage. The ASMF clearly admires their leader and accorded him a heartfelt ovation. The audience, too, loved what they had heard.
After intermission Bell and his colleagues offered Florence Price’s three and one-half minute long gem Adoration, a 1951 organ solo work here offered in Jim Gray’s touching arrangement for solo violin and chamber orchestra. Those few minutes were the softest and most moving yet of the afternoon. The rapt silence at the end of this brief moment in time reminded us of how music can offer solace in times of strife and illness. It felt poignant, indeed, when one remembers that Price had been a student at NEC in the 30s, and struggled with the powers-that-be in Boston to have her very worthy compositions performed in her lifetime. Only now is it emerging. Bravo to ASMF for bringing this American work on their tour!
The Academy’s 7-6-4-4-2 complement of strings allowed the woodwinds to unforcedly and sonorously soar in a deliciously vivacious and balanced transparency of sound not often encountered when big orchestras play Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Bell didn’t allow quite enough space for breathing and relaxation in the symphony’s more cantabilé middle two movements, but he dispatched the outer ones with great spirit, the Saltarello: Presto fourth being especially fiery with its whirling and twirling dance-inspired writing.
One eagerly awaits this sterling ensemble’s return.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.