Arts & Events

Joshua Bell Dazzles in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday April 11, 2015 - 03:59:00 PM

On Thursday afternoon, April 10, a sold-out audience showed up at Davies Hall to hear Joshua Bell; and the pixyish violinist did not disappoint. With the San Francisco Symphony led by Spanish guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, Joshua Bell performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D-Major, which work replaced the Beethoven Violin Concerto originally scheduled. (No reason was given for the switch in programming.)  

Conductor Heras-Casado’s tempos seemed a bit slow in the first two movements of Tchaikovsky’s great Violin Concerto. Otherwise, this was a straightforward rendition offering the soloist plenty of virtuoso opportunities. In the opening movement, the orchestra plays a brief introduction, which is followed by very strenuous work by the solo violinist, who takes the lead in announcing and elaborating both the first and second themes, with the orchestra merely supplying a modest accompaniment. Joshua Bell tore into this music with technical skill and passion. In the past, I have always considered this work’s final movement as the most difficult to play. But on this hearing I was impressed by the technical challenges of the opening movement. Joshua Bell more than met these challenges; he was positively dazzling in his virtuosity. 

The second movement, labeled by the composer a Canzonetta: Andante, opens with the orchestra introducing a soft lyrical theme, quickly taken up by the violin, then echoed by the oboe. Later in this movement, there is a lovely theme played by the violin, then repeated, in turn, by the clarinet, bassoon, and cello. The third and final movement, marked Allegro vivacissimo, strikes a frantic pace which is sustained to the end, making enormous technical demands on the solo violinist. Joshua Bell handled these demands with aplomb. Only the acoustics of Davies Hall conspired against him, causing him to be faintly heard in certain passages where he had to play against the full orchestra at top volume. 

As for the first half of this concert’s program, a few words will suffice. The 1992 Chamber Symphony by John Adams can be summarily dismissed. It is a gimmicky piece dominated by a percussion section that includes a cowbell, hi-hat cymbals, snare drum, pedal bass drum, wood block, two bongos, three tom-toms, roto toms, tambourine, timbales, claves, and a conga drum. Like so many of this over-rated composer’s works, this 23-minute piece strikes me as meretricious.  

Next on the program was Arnold Schoenberg’s 1906 Chamber Symphony No. 1, performed in the revised and enlarged orchestration, Opus 9b, that Schoenberg created in Hollywood in 1935 after emigrating from Vienna just before the Nazi Anschluss. This Chamber Symphony is a transitional work in Schoenberg’s career. It is not an atonal work, although its tonality is ambiguous. Some listeners consider this Chamber Symphony a post-Romantic piece akin to Schoenberg’s earlier Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Other listeners admire the Chamber Symphony’s neo-classical austerity, (characteristics more pronounced in the original chamber-sized orchestration). Still others find this work revolutionary and burning with expressionism. I personally find the opening and closing sections of this Chamber Symphony heavy on the horn section, with too much blaring brass. However, this work includes a brief middle section of soft lyricism where the cellos often take the lead. On the whole, however, this Chamber Symphony strikes me as a rather unappealing work, lacking either the lush post-Wagnerian Romanticism of this composer’s Verklärte Nacht or the engagingly dramatic monumentality of his Gurre-=Lieder. It is not, in my opinion, a work of lasting worth.