four performances of the Brahms Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at Walt Disney Concert Hall this weekend.Superstar violinist Joshua Bell was in top form in his first of
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.
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 Violinist.com 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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