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Laurie Niles

Review: Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer at the Hollywood Bowl

July 21, 2012 at 11:01 PM

Ah, the Hollywood Bowl, at dusk, on a perfect night last Thursday. It's the beautiful beginning of a classical concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a concert featuring two of today's finest musicians, Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer.

Carl Maria von Weber's "Der Freischutz" pulses peacefully -- until a helicopter interrupts with a frustratingly long and loud trek across the darkening sky over the Bowl.

My brow furrowed. The helicopter faded away, but still the sound seemed foggy; all the fast syncopations in "Der Freischutz" seemed to have hiccups and get lost in this giant venue. This giant venue! I started a list of complaints.

Then came the next piece, Edgar Meyer's new Double Concerto for Violin, Bass and Orchestra, which was commissioned by Joshua Bell for them to play together and was premiered earlier this month at Tanglewood. The minute Joshua's distinct violin sound pierced the air, I forgot all such thoughts of "what a muddy, echoey, too-big, over-miked, pain-in-neck venue this is!" The music focused, the audience of several thousand silenced, and all was right.

Hollywood Bowl

I enjoyed Edgar Meyer's piece, from its bouncy opening to its mercurial end.

The movements were labeled only by number; the first movement was full of syncopation, interesting interplay and something soaring over something buoyant. For me, the highlight was the cadenza, which began with the bass playing its lowest note (at least I think so) against the violin playing crazy, crazy high. Then the two crossed over each other, with the bass moving to its highest note and the violin to its lowest. Meyer and Bell sped up together in perfect sync, then played against each other with incredibly fast syncopation. "Syncopation with abandon," I wrote -- it's the kind where you don't wait to bounce off each other, but you just barrel ahead in perfect ping-pong timing. The cadenza ended with them holding onto very high notes together, then sinking gracefully back into the bouncy orchestra theme. That cadenza was a gem. The movement ended with a bass pizzicato pluck, cute!

The program notes said that the slower-paced second movement was composed during the days after the death of 20-year-old Curtis Institute bass student Louisa Womack, who was a student of Meyer. Indeed there were moments when the orchestra seemed to burst forth, and others were more like dialogues, some between the violin and bass, some between violin and orchestra, some between the orchestra and a woodwind instrument.

The third movement began slowly, sparsely, then the bass and violin cut in with a fast and jazzy outburst. This juxtaposition of different styles continued throughout the movement, with sometimes the jazz interrupting and sometimes the slow theme interrupting. The jazzy theme was a fast ride on a machine with perhaps three feet, one wheel and two wings. The rapid meter changes made for a rather thrilling and dangerous dance, so easy it is to misstep when you are dancing in, say, 11.

My positive reaction to the piece seemed reflected in other audience members; I overheard a woman saying to a friend, "I liked the piece…it wasn't overwhelmingly modern."

I smiled. We all know what she is saying; the piece was not an assault on the ears, as if anything "modern" is. But this piece is "modern"; it was written this year, and it's certainly set in the present. Perhaps this kind of piece can help us re-think our definitions and perceptions about "modern" and "new" music.

During the second half of the concert, Bell treated us to an old favorite: the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Just before he took the stage, the gentleman sitting next to me noticed my pen and note-taking, and asked if I were writing about the concert. When he learned I was a violinist, he asked, "Does Joshua Bell know this piece well?" I smiled. "Yes!"

The question rang in my head. Josh probably first played the Mendelssohn as a child; he first recorded the piece when he was 20, in 1988, with the Orchestra of Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, conducting. Bell is now the Music Director of that orchestra. He recorded the piece again in 2002, this time with his own cadenza.

Here he was, playing it for the…how many-eth time? I'm sure he's lost count. He played Thursday night with so much vitality. Funny, how a piece like the Mendelssohn does not get old in the way we humans get old, or cars get old, or milk gets old. It ages in the way that a good friendship ages -- and Josh is good friends with the Mendelssohn. What came forth, besides good articulation and technique, was love and excitement. He played his own cadenza, and despite the fact that he has been playing this cadenza for 10 years, this was the first time I'd heard it live.

Though cadenzas evolved as as interludes during which the orchestra drops out and the soloist improvises, Mendelssohn actually wrote the cadenza right into his violin concerto. And it's a cool cadenza, a cadenza that taught a lot of us violinists how to do a fouring bouncing bariolage. How could anyone dare replace it?

Listening to Josh play his cadenza, I realized for the first time that Mendelssohn's cadenza doesn't have a whole lot of meat on its bones, despite its fun. By contrast, Josh has taken material from all over the first movement, even material from the orchestra part. I daresay it has more substance than the original; it's quite creative.

The Mendelssohn Violin concerto is one of those pieces that stands right at the juncture between Classical and Romantic music, and Josh's performance brought this out. He did not plaster sentimentality across the entire piece; it came out in little touches: a note brought out there, a bit of vibrato there. And yes, Joshua played with all the physicality for which he is known, I do think he even jumped a few times!

My violin teacher at Indiana University, trying to get me to give a little more, once asked me in a very intense tone, "If you have a lemon, do you squeeze the last bit of juice out of it, or do you THROW IT AWAY!"

Josh is lemonade, baby.

* * *

After the concert, I went backstage to say "Hello," and here is a little picture for you:

Meyer, Bell, Laurie
Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell and Laurie

Below, Josh speaks about the Mendelssohn. The video leaves us dangling, right before his first-movement cadenza:

But if you really want to hear that cadenza, here is a link for you. It starts at 3:38.

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