Joshua Bell Redeems a Tchaikovsky Warhorse

Joshua Bell [photo (c) Bill Phelps]

Joshua Bell [photo (c) Bill Phelps]

At age 10, having placed highly in a national tennis tournament, Joshua Bell appeared to be launching a promising sports career. But two years later, his parents changed his violin teacher to Joseph Gingold, Indiana University’s master violin pedagogue, and it soon became clear which endeavor would become Bell’s avocation.

Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 at age 17 with the St. Louis Symphony and has been thrilling synphony audiences ever since. Friday (May 24) he enchanted a packed Copley Hall audience playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the San Diego Symphony under Music Director Jahja Ling.

Had Friday’s soloist been another violinist, I might have passed on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, nearly everyone’s favorite violin concerto and mercilessly overprogrammed. But Bell has a way of making the familiar fresh, deflecting expectations and opening ears. From his opening notes, he spun out a lithe, shimmering line, deftly inflected but explosive under its surface sheen.

Always a sympathetic accompanist, Ling shaped the orchestra”s dynamics and colors to Bell’s every nuance, carefully delaying[php snippet=1] muscular climaxes to the end of the opening movement. Bell’s cadenzas floated through the hall, and the sizable house took them in with unusually rapt attention.  Bell’s middle movement, the balletic Canzonetta, came across as a supple pas de deux between soloist and orchestra, and his fleet, immaculate technique propelled the finale to an exhilarating conclusion.

The composer’s biographers always stress Tchaikovsky’s great admiration of Mozart, and in this account of the Violin Concerto I finally heard those typically Mozartean qualities of grace and architectural elegance, traits I never stumble across in that Tchaikovsky Suite he titled “Mozartiana.”

Ling opened the concert with an urgently paced interpretation of Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride, which his players delivered with uncommon unity within the sections as well as consistently supple phrasing. Such urgency was nowhere to be found in Ling’s grand, monumental direction of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”). His slow movements developed with a ponderous, Brucknerian determination, although it gave the woodwind players in particular ample time to craft heart-winning solos. This program brought to a close this season’s Jacobs Masterworks series. Two performances remain: May 25 at 8:00 p.m. and May 26 at 2:00 p.m.

Concert Program

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