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In performance: Josh Bell at the NSO

In today's Washington Post: The NSO's excursions with Wolff and Bell, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 20, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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If I remember correctly, the piece that Joshua Bell was supposed to play when the season was announced was Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. This would have made a unified Scottish-themed program.

I am going to Sunday's concert anyway.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 20, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

I too had the Scottish Fantasy on my calendar.

I find that I am in general agreement with Anne's review, especially the Mendelssohn which I thought was just about perfect. The Scottish symphony tends to be overshadowed by its almost bombastic, goose bump inducing coda, but it is a wonderful piece throughout and I could find no fault whatsoever in the performance which was wonderful and in places an education on what I should have been listening for in the piece lo these many years. I have heard performances in which the coda, played too fast or too slow, has been disappointing. If you don't get that just right, it brings down all that has gone before. Last night, it was just right and the goose bumps were there.

I am not particularly fond of contemporary music but A Meditation on Iona was certainly interesting I might have preferred more muted bells, like the sound of a distant church on a wind swept isle. I asked the young college student sitting next to me, who said he enjoyed it very much, if he would buy a CD of it and listen to it in his living room. He said yes, but that he would probably download it. As for the loudness of the bells, I wonder if I was experiencing some unusual accoustic phenomenon. In addition to bells, the piece called for beats on a very large metal sheet, hung in a parabola at the back of the stage. Could it be that the sound from those bells were being focused on my first tier, obstructed view seat? I raise this possibility because I felt the Lalo suffered from exceptionally loud brass. The bells of the French horns were aimed directly at this sheet, but even the trumpets over on the right side of the stage seemed to be originating on the left and were for me unduly loud and harsh as if the higher harmonics were being emphasized. It would have been interesting to run around to the other side of the hall and see if I experienced the same effect.

I don't care for the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole all that much. The first and last movements are very familiar but the middle movements less so and I wonder if that is because the first and last movements are played as fillers on classical music radio. For me, the brass detracted from Bell's playing, almost like a rude interruption. Perhaps it was not the fault of the orchestra or the big metal sheet, but the way the music was written. It left me wondering what Rimsky Korsakov or Ravel might have done with the orchestration. I completely concur with Anne's observation of Bell's artless lyricism and sweet tone which I thought of as purity of tone. A couple of near duets with violin and clarinet were also very effective and I hope the performers enjoyed these snippets as much as I did. Anne commented on Bell being the evening's draw. Several times during the day I had heard friends express great excitement that we were going to hear Joshua Bell's concert (inevitably followed with a recounting of the oft heard story of his recital in the L'Enfant Plaza metro stop.) And at the end of the Lalo, the entire audience was almost instantaneously on its collective feet clapping, yelling and cheering. It is as if DC has adopted Bell as a native son. Perhaps recitals in Metro stations make for clever loss leaders.

It was a pleasure seeing Hugh Wolff back with the NSO. I can remember when he was an associate conductor for the NSO and still seemed like a kid. I enjoyed his opening remarks which helped to put me in the proper frame of mind to enjoy the evening.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | November 20, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

The National Symphony says that the Bruch piece was switched at Bell's request.

Posted by: MidgetteA | November 20, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the information, Anne. I was wondering about that, too. It looks like last season he was playing the Scottish Fantasy but this season he's doing the Lalo. It does make for an odd program, but I'd be happy to hear him play either.

I think you're absolutely right that the Lalo is well suited to his strengths, but a year or two ago I heard him and Jeremy Denk give a superb performance of Beethoven op. 96 and a Schumann sonata, works that you wouldn't necessarily associate with Joshua Bell. He's more versatile than you might think, especially when he partners with Denk. I'm looking forward to Denk's solo recital next year

Posted by: BillWalderman | November 20, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

I appreciated Anne Midgette's thoughtful and accurate review of Thursday night's NSO concert in Friday's Post.

It was a very nice evening, some ups and downs but overall quite fine.

Joshua Bell is a treat, but Anne's comment that he "seems not quite to linger
over the notes" seems right on target. He is truly impressive to watch, but
it's more athletic than interpretive. Maybe appropriate for the Lalo material,
but not my favorite kind of material, so... I thought Anne's point was a slightly daring comment for a critic to make, on such a crowd-pleaser, but I'm with her.

The Mendelssohn "Scottish" was a delight, and the orchestra was excellent.
Leonard Slatkin has given us a really nice legacy in the orchestra's level of performance - a huge improvement from what Rostropovich left to him. I know the piece is to be played with no breaks between movements, but I thought Wolff jumped from the long slow held note at the end of the third movement into the fourth movement's opening "ba-bump" a bit jarringly. A minor quibble on an uplifting performance.


Posted by: MassanuttenPhil | November 21, 2009 1:05 AM | Report abuse

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