Joshua Bell polishes his credential as a true romantic

By - Mar 24th, 2011 02:08 pm
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Joshua Bell rehearsing with the MSO Wednesday. TCD picture by Nickolas Nikolic.

A light rumble from the tympani, a short phrase by the orchestra, then Joshua Bell enters alone. Very slow, smooth, achingly Romantic first lines set the tone. Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto has a few sections for virtuoso playing, but is primarily an all-out Romantic piece and calls first of all for an emotional response from violinist and orchestra. From the first slow tender phrases of the opening lines, Bell engaged.

Bell starred in a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra special concert Wednesday evening (March 23).  Bell, a child phenom at 14, maintains his boyish looks, youthful hair cut and charismatic grin at 43. The Bruch concerto was one of his early recording successes and his mastery of the work is evident. (One of his performances is captured here. )

Bruch’s concerto calls for close cooperation between violinist and orchestra. During the Adagio, the violin sang above flowing orchestra strings. The violin introduced the melodies; the orchestra celebrated them later in the movement. Themes were often revisited, extending their welcome.

The final movement opened on a strong triumphal note, as orchestra and violin explored a driving theme together. Often the violin introduced a phrase, accelerated it and was joined by orchestra at the top of the arc to send it over the top. Usually, the orchestra murmured quietly while the violin sang, but at times they merged, challenging Bell to rise above the orchestra’s volume. Bruch offers little complex development in this concerto. A single bright, optimistic melody opened the finale and served violin and orchestra as they romped to a joyous conclusion.

The concert opened with the short, spirited overture to Mozart’s last opera, La clemenza di Tito. Guest conductor Christopher Seaman delivered a carefully paced interpretation from a very disciplined ensemble.

Prussian Infantry - 1745

Attack of the Prussian Infantry – 1745 – Painting by Carl Röchling

Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 (“Military”), one of the popular London symphonies, continued the program. The symphony featured approachable themes – light melodies often developed in the winds in dialogue with strings or full orchestra.

The second movement includes a battle scene, with percussion effects that may have seemed daring at the time. Contemporaries quoted in the program heard it as “the sounding of the charge, the thundering of the onset, the clash of arms, the groans of the wounded, and what might be called the hellish roar of war increase to a climax of horrid solemnity!” This month the Bel Canto Chorus and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra featured two compositions incorporating battles more effectively designed to persuade listeners of the horrors of the American Civil war. By contrast, Haydn’s version of a battle seemed very tame – almost genteel, with battle represented by triangle, cymbals and drum. The percussion seemed like a mechanical musical instrument set to support the orchestral drama on cue. Seaman led the orchestra through this period piece with a formal air, as a cycling through themes at an ever quickening pace while maintaining a tight discipline over the structure of the work.

Bell closed the concert with a clever encore, Henri Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d’Amérique – Variations burlesques sur “Yankee Doodle,” Opus 17. The variations showcase the styles and moods a violin can produce, including virtuoso mimicry of banjo, gypsy fiddle and bluegrass violin. (You can listen to it here. )

Conductor Christopher Seaman will repeat Haydn’s 100th Symphony at the MSO Classic series concerts at 11:15 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25-26. Duo pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton will be featured in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 10 (K 316a). Todd Levy, principal clarinetist with the MSO, will perform Stamitz’s Concerto for Clarinet in B-flat major. More information at the MSO website, the MSO ticket line (414 291-7605) and the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

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