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ARCHIVE: HSO (March 2019)

Originally published 3/16/2019

Classical music superstar Joshua Bell served as violin soloist and conductor for an all-Beethoven Houston Symphony concert at Jones Hall Friday evening. Given his perennial boyish good looks and audience appeal, it is surprising to note that his solo career has spanned 37 years and he has passed the mid-century mark. So, what makes him so great? To answer, I refer to one of the best films of all time, “Amadeus,” which tells a somewhat factual story about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s a great movie– especially F. Murray Abraham’s portrayal of Mozart’s arch-rival Antonio Salieri– but they didn’t quite get the character of Mozart right. Tom Hulce’s Mozart was too often portrayed as being childish. The source of Mozart’s consistently inspired genius was his connection with his inner child. That is child-like, not child-ish. It is creating and recreating with the wonder and imagination of the first time of everything that has moved and touched your inner being. That same quality is embodied in Josh Bell, and that’s what makes him so great.

I had the pleasure of hearing a thirteen-year-old Josh perform while I was teaching at the famed Meadowmount School for Strings, a summer program that attracted many of the most gifted young string players. He played Paganini’s 1st violin concerto, with the extraordinarily difficult Sauret cadenza. It was virtually flawless, but aside from that, it was musical. The first movement can sound like an etude and the second theme often sounds like a caricature of itself. Not so with the young Bell. In spite of his youth he played with the soul of a mature artist. I was moved enough to tell his parents I believed he would have a world career. Nearly four decades later, he still plays with the vitality and excitement of his youth. Audiences sense that spark of creativity, hoping to share, if only for an evening, that wondrous feeling. This evening, they did.

Beethoven’s violin concerto is considered by many to be the greatest of violin concertos. So, what makes it so great? In the movie “Being There,” Chance the Gardener’s simplicity is mistaken for profundity. The opposite is true of Beethoven’s violin concerto, where the profound may be mistaken for simplicity. The orchestra provides a framework of basic chords accompanied by a solo part consisting primarily of scales and arpeggios. Deceptively simple, it allows for a depth of expression that would not be possible by more elaborate means. But the music does not play itself. It requires an artist of both technical and musical strengths to unlock its secrets, and typically, a conductor of equal skills.

Bell assumed a dual role, alternately leading the orchestra and playing the solo part. This is a difficult task since the two have different musculatures. Violin playing moves both arms and hands independently, with the left elbow turned in and the right arm moving from closed to open positions. Conducting utilizes larger, often symmetrical motions, with both elbows pointed out. Switching from one to the other over a few beats is exceptionally difficult. After leading the extended orchestral introduction with his bow, Bell had a few measures of less than pristine intonation when first switching to the solo. This was fleeting, if not untypical, and shortly the familiar silky tone and facile technique became the rule. Bell was at his best technically in two self-composed cadenzas, and musically during the lyrical and poetic second movement. The third movement is an upbeat country dance, which he laced with humor and technical brilliance. Bell played with energy and physicality, along with a persona that exudes joy. This is his trademark, and the reason why he can fill a hall, including many who don’t typically attend concerts. While welcomed, they may have initiated the applause between each and every movement, including interrupting the attacca into the third movement of the concerto.

The Houston Symphony musicians did an admirable job of keeping together and following Bell’s lead. With the assistance of the principal string players, the concerto became chamber music writ large. Even so, there were a very few ragged attacks. Solo woodwinds featured expressive clarinet and bassoon solos as well as an impossibly soft French horn duet. Balance was very good throughout, although repeated harmonic notes in the trumpets sometimes overshadowed melodic parts.

Following intermission, Bell returned without a bow or a baton to lead Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. A symphonic middle child, it sits between the more famous 3rd and 5th symphonies. Unlike its profound siblings, the 4th has a sunny and cheerful disposition, making it an ideal vehicle for Bell’s energetic and joy-filled style. He has recorded this work with the fabled Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra, where as music director he sits in the concertmaster position and leads. That model initially proved unworkable in Houston, so Bell stood and conducted instead. That move had mixed success. His fluid arm motions often outlined phrases and dynamics, leaving long spaces without a defined beat. Part of what makes Beethoven so great is an ever-present pulse. Focusing on the main melody, as a soloist would naturally do, makes the placement of internal beats difficult. The result was exciting music making, but with an underlying nervous insecurity. Since Bell is used to holding a bow and gesturing with it, he may need to consider using a baton to conduct. His arm and wrist motions remind me of Vasily Petrenko, who often conducts sans baton but uses one when needed.

Bell’s tempos were fast, often precipitately so. The performance had a white-knuckle feel not unlike watching the documentary movie “Free Solo,” where you realize a single misstep would result in disaster. The Houston Symphony gamely responded to Bell’s infectious enthusiasm. Noteworthy was a brilliantly executed Scherzo. String principals again offered leadership throughout that facilitated ensemble, but even given the expert leadership of guest concertmaster Soovin Kim, the first violins were not uniformly cohesive. The symphony again featured outstanding clarinet solos by Mark Nuccio and bassoonist Rian Craypo, who somehow managed to play the notoriously difficult passages in the Finale at Bell’s accelerated tempo. Marked Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast) but directed at an Allegro Vivace speed seemingly carried over from the Scherzo, the movement took on the kinetic character of the finale of Bizet’s Symphony in C. While breathless, it was not always tight. The performance received extended applause from the Houston audience.

Joshua Bell is a contemporary classical music icon. He has preserved and maintained the energy and passion to create that defined his youth. His sharing of that gift of genius contributes to a secure future for classical music. We should thank him for that.

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