Last night in the will call line at Ordway Center I was surrounded by giggling teenage girls (some accompanied by their tittering mothers). The audience for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's concert with Joshua Bell seemed to skew more adolescent female than usual.
The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D, K504, called the “Prague Symphony" after the city where Mozart amounted to a superstar (likely with his own giggling gaggle of adoring fans) late in his career. Bell led the orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair, a collegial approach that inspired some very fine playing from all sections. It set the stage for the kind of playing heard throughout the concert from the orchestra—mindful phrasing, well-matched articulations, and an intellectual exactitude. It was fun to watch Bell play sitting down—it looked hard for him, maybe a little restrictive. All his energy seemed to want to rise.
He was on his feet for the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26, the real treat of the night. Here also, in addition to soloing, Bell conducted the SPCO, leading sections with general whole-body gestures and cueing individuals with eyes, breath, and bow.
Joshua Bell live is an amazing, multisensory pleasure. You can listen with your eyes closed (ask anyone who owns one of his thirty-one albums), but watching him is a pure privilege. You can see the beauty of the music all over his face—its romance and its anguish. You can feel and taste the warmth and sweetness of his instrument (the 1713 “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius). Oh, and what you hear! The long, legato lines of the Adagio movement seemed to stretch on forever, and the audience held its breath.
This is what is so spectacular about his playing—it goes beyond complete commitment to the music and into a different universe of utter absorption, and it is impossible not to be seduced. (If any of the teenagers in the audience are starting a fan club, count me in.)
Bell recently won the first Avery Fisher award bestowed in three years, and the largest purse in the history of the prize. But he has probably gotten more press lately for the Washington Post experiment in which he played his Stradivarius in a Washington D.C. subway station to a largely oblivious parade of distracted commuters. (He made $32.17.)
It seems utterly impossible that Bell wouldn’t have stopped me in my tracks at that subway station. But transfer the experiment to a freeway exit in Minneapolis—would I stop if the beggars were holding a Strad instead of a cardboard sign?
The experiment showed just how distracted we are in our busy lives that we can pass by without noticing great beauty, and make perceptual assumptions based on context. But last night’s concert context reminded me of the soul-satisfying value of stopping and listening.
I had never been to one of SPCO’s “Jazzed Up Fridays” concerts, but it’s an interesting concept; after intermission, concertgoers are given a choice to listen to jazz in the Marzitelli Foyer or return to the concert hall for the rest of the classical program.
Last night’s live jazz was supplied by Chris Brown and Friends. But I opted to return to the classical realm, where Steven Copes, Sabina Thatcher, and Ronald Thomas played Beethoven’s Trio in C Minor for Violin, Viola and Cello, Opus 9, No. 3. They showed tight ensemble, good communication, and blazing technicality. But I wish I had heard it before the first half, not after. It’s hard to come down from a large-scale work to a chamber work, and even harder to come down from Bell to anything else—it’s just an unfair position to put the trio. For me, the Bruch was so unbelievably great that nothing else should have followed.
This weekend’s concerts are the last for Bell in his role as Artistic Partner of the SPCO, but the SPCO assures that he will return in future seasons as a guest artist.