Review: Joshua Bell Performs Brahms Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

October 14, 2016, 3:11 PM · Superstar violinist Joshua Bell was in top form in his first of four performances of the Brahms Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend.

Bell, who recently released an all-Brahms recording called For the Love of Brahms, is known for his kinetic style, but what struck me about his performance Thursday was his ability to bring about stillness.

Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell.

Certainly, Bell still moves a lot -- this is no surprise to those of us who have followed him for a lifetime. The Brahms Violin Concerto begins with one of the world's longest (and most beautiful) orchestral introductions, making the soloist wait an eternity. The orchestra then revs up like a launch roller coaster for the violinist's entrance, made all the more exciting in this case by Bell's athletic energy, running up the fingerboard and landing in perfect octaves.

The concerto is also full of wide intervals, leaping high then diving low. Somehow Bell can fling boundless rock-star energy into these high notes and still hit the top with spot-on pitch and well-calculated bow control.

Yet he is also a master of repose. Brahms' soaring melodies were tender and sweet, and at times Bell led the listener into a still place where time seemed to trail off. Even when he was not playing, Bell seemed to be at one with the orchestra, receding into the background and yet fully involved. In the last five years Bell has conducted the London-based Academy of St Martin in the Fields, sometimes from the soloist's spot, and that seamless role-changing seems evident even with Bell clearly in the soloist's spot.

In the first movement Bell played his own cadenza, something that has evolved over many years, he told me after the concert. It was full of double stops, bariolage, some Ysaye-ish licks. Yet it always adhered to the inevitable flow of Brahms' ideas while hinting at far-off musical lands. It was a creative mix of musical ideas, gorgeously rendered. Emerging from that cadenza, the conclusion of the first movement was breathtaking - another moment of heart-stopping stillness.

The audience, ahhh Los Angeles, could not resist clapping here, which Bell acknowledged with a gracious smile.

The second movement was full of suspense and long lines. It's hard to imagine a more attentive partner than Dudamel. Together, Bell and Dudamel used their superpowers to create a kind of synchronicity that is rare in Brahms, which is composed with so much density and rhythmic counterplay that a certain muddiness is usually par for the course. Listening to the third movement I had to ask, where is the murk? Every detail seemed intact. To put it in California surf lingo, with everything so precisely in place, Bell could just ride those tasty waves of sound. It was downright mesmerizing. The audience stood immediately afterwards and called Bell back to the stage four times, though he did not play an encore. We probably would have kept him there all night.

The second half of the concert was devoted to two works by Richard Strauss: "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," both Romantic-era tone poems requiring a full stage of instrumentalists. For the violinist, "Don Juan" is infamous music, the devilishly difficult first page being required in professional orchestral auditions the world over. I smiled when I realized I was watching LA Phil associate concertmaster and member Nathan Cole playing Don Juan, after his many tutorials here on the subject!

As a violinist myself, with lingering, er -- post-traumatic Strauss disorder? I welcomed a new feeling about these works, as an audience member who did not have to negotiate such difficulties. This is awesome music, in the real sense of the word. Both works are massive, complex, clever and larger-than life. Dudamel, conducting without a score, marshaled these augmented orchestral forces with complete assurance, and the LA Phil musicians seemed up for the task.

The concert began with a short work by German composer Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971) called "Towards Osiris," organized around a theme of being shattered and then made whole. It begins with a collection of creaky-quiet noises reminiscent of dripping water in a bog, rattlesnakes in a desert, bugs crawling. There were squeaks, high glissandi, plentiful percussion. Toward the end, the amorphous sound it began to coalesce, the strings climbing to the conclusion.

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October 15, 2016 at 04:33 AM · Wow! Thanks for letting all of us share your wonderful Joshua Bell/LA Phil evening through your (as always) carefully and beautifully painted word pictures, Laurie! It sounds like he just gets better and better!

October 15, 2016 at 01:19 PM · I was privileged to hear Joshua Bell in Grass Valley (California) last year in a small venue, an absolutely breathtaking experience. Thanks for your review that made feel like I was there!

October 16, 2016 at 09:33 AM · Laurie ~

What are you referring to when writing 'Ysaye-ish' licks, prey tell!! The Kreisler Cadenza is glorious and so, btw, is that of Mr. Heifetz!!

Stillness is an Art and when once having a long discussion with Canadian Olympic Silver Medalist Figure Men's Skating champion, Elvis Stoijko, he had much to say about the power of stillness on the ice ~ It is rare these days but a very special quality and especially in the Brahms Violin Concerto and in his 'Rain ' Sonata No. 1 in G Major in the slow movement ~ a prayer amid a growing climax of emotion ~

Certainly wish I could have been there to hear this, in my hometown, w/ many friends/colleagues in the LA Phil & a great Musician/Conductor, Dudamel ~

Thank you for your on site impressions! (re: Don Juan ~ Well!!!!! It's wizardry and yet very achingly beautiful.) For myself, the most difficult Concertmaster Solo is that sneaky & 'thorny thicket' 'Til Eulenspiegel' Solo. It is so elusive no matter how many times one performs it and evasive to nail on the one chance in Live performance no matter how much work one has put into it! I always wonder if Strauss liked the violin??? What you say?!!! Best Wishes, Elisabeth Matesky /Chicago ~

October 16, 2016 at 11:24 PM · Yet another great current violinist whose work argues strongly against the notion that they all play the same these days.

October 17, 2016 at 04:40 AM · It was a fun concert for sure! Thanks for your impressions Laurie.

October 17, 2016 at 03:51 PM · Elisabeth, I think Strauss must have liked writing for the violin, as he wrote so many notes for us. But did he like violinists? Making us play all that and then covering it up with the winds? Not so sure! ;)

Paul, very true! Bell certainly has a unique voice, one with both a sense of history but also individuality.

Nathan, it's wonderful to hear the LA Phil and to hear all those pieces played so well.

October 19, 2016 at 12:21 AM · My apologies for coming off a bit snobbish, but having heard Joshua Bell on several occasions, I was curious to understand what you hear so "special" about his playing. I even checked out his Brahms concerto on YouTube! The opening line is just a "mush" of notes accentuated with exaggerated gyrations of his body. I think his playing is very tense & unnatural. Having heard one of the true "greats" of the Golden Era, Nathan Milstein, at the ripe young age of 82...Mr. Milstein could fiddle circles around "Maestro" Bell. The public needs to open their ears & close their eyes (i.e. "live" Brahms w/Milstein & Sabata). If Joshua Bell is who represents the new generation of violinist, we are in real trouble. But luckily, there are some really amazing violinists: Hilary Hahn, Augustin Haedelich, Sergey Khachatryan, Ray Chen, James Ehnes, Leonidas Kavakos to name a few. I am not a professional violinist, but I know a thing or two about fiddle needs to look easy! Read what Erick Friedman said about the playing of Heifetz & Milstein in the "The Way They Play." The mechanics of a fluid & efficient technique need to be there. I know I will get criticism for knocking down a "Box Office" Idol...but he is only that! I've never been impressed with his playing & reading such "flowery" reviews forced me to voice an opinion. Please take it as such and my apologies for being offensive to some. But yes, to the general public...he is a heart-throb. And he sells seats! But compare his playing to a Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, or Henryk see but a caricature!!

October 19, 2016 at 04:56 AM · You see a caricature, but I think people tend to do too much "seeing" when it comes to Bell. I listen, and I like what I hear. We disagree! That is okay.

October 19, 2016 at 06:05 AM · It's a matter of opinion Laurie, so I guess it is good to disagree. Sorry for being so stubborn, but I cannot be critical when I hear poor playing. Mr. Bell is no doubt a talented musician, but again, in my opinion...not the super-stardom level that some make him out to be. There are more deserving soloists that do not receive the same level of opportunities that his status has brought him. Is this fair? I guess the world is not a fair that's life! But again, I dare there any comparison to a Milstein or Heifetz? And as far as tone...listen to Zukerman! That sort of sound only comes with a relaxed technique that doesn't press. But as an amateur, I will leave it that. However, I am very well-versed in violin playing, having heard the likes of Milstein, Szeryng, Menuhin, Franco Gulli, & Camilla Wicks in concert...and now we have the opportunity to hear all sorts of great performances on YouTube. As Mr Ricci would say, a good violinist requires three basic elements...good intonation, a sense of rhythm, and a beautiful sound. The bow arm is missing in Mr Bell's playing. It is like an Artist without his paint brush. I only say that there's a different "quality" that I hear when I go to a "live" performance of say Ray Chen playing Tartini's Devils Thrill and that of Joshua Bell. Sorry...but there is a difference! And in my is very big. So again, it's hard to bite my tongue when I hear such rave reviews for a mediocre player.

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