A season opener can be many things. If it’s an occasion for old friends to get together and conjure up some music, violinist Joshua Bell was a good choice as soloist in a pair of concerts kicking off the Minnesota Orchestra’s 114th season.
These are indeed old friends: Bell, music director Osmo Vänskä and the members of this orchestra. Bell toured Europe with the orchestra in 2004 and 2009, and before that, in the fall of 2000, he was the soloist, playing an illuminating account of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, in what was Vänskä’s debut with the orchestra.
Bell and Vänskä managed to make Sibelius seem new 16 years ago, and they did the same thing with another overplayed work, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Thursday night at Orchestra Hall.
At 48, and looking at least 10 years younger, Bell remains consistently interesting and rewarding as a player. Partly it’s that he doesn’t sound like anybody else, unless one thinks of the great Romantic violinists of an earlier day: Fritz Kreisler, Eugene Ysaye, Mischa Elman. Bell’s link to these players was his teacher at Indiana University, Josef Gingold.
The hallmarks of that style — flexible tempos, subtle application of rubato and portamento (sliding between notes) and a sweet, vibrato-rich tone — come naturally to Bell. They’re not affectations.
As a result, the Tchaikovsky concerto, so often pummeled and distorted, was explored Thursday night with a concern for nuance, variety of color and technical excitement.
There was a welcome playfulness to the first-movement cadenza and a gentle songful character to the slow movement. The finale, swift and light, had the gossamer quality of Mendelssohn’s best music.
Responding to a tumultuous ovation from the capacity audience, Bell and the orchestra played the beautiful title track from Nigel Hess’ score for the film “Ladies in Lavender,” which Bell recorded in 2005.
Vänskä led an elegant, refined reading of Brahms’ autumnal Symphony No. 2 during the second half. The obligatory short and perky American piece designed to act as curtain-raiser was, in this instance, Todd Levin’s “Blur,” a cleverly orchestrated evocation of dance club music in the vein of Lalo Schifrin’s theme from “Mission: Impossible.”
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.