Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” is not a great work of art. But it’s a great violin showpiece. In the hands of a master showman like Joshua Bell, performing with the Minnesota Orchestra Tuesday night at Orchestra Hall, it was an exciting entertainment.
The evening was a real event. At the outset, the sellout audience gave both the orchestra and conductor Osmo Vänskä standing ovations at their first entrances.
Lalo wrote “Symphonie espagnole” for Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, a superstar of the late 19th century, and it requires a superstar to fully execute it. Bell dazzled.
When he performed with the orchestra on their European tour in 2009, Bell and Vänskä became keen collaborators. Their closeness was obvious in the way they communicated onstage. They were perfectly in sync.
From the violin’s first brief entrance with its exquisitely played stratospheric high notes to the luxurious legato melodies, Bell displayed technical virtuosity. Even more, he made the flashy music strike an emotional chord.
The final movement opened with a darker tone, the orchestra creating a lush sound that matched Bell’s plaintive music making. The work concluded with pyrotechnics from Bell, a final burst of gaiety.
The forces received another cheering standing ovation that continued long after the houselights came up.
The concert opened with another Spanish-themed work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol.” The orchestra delivered a rousing performance.
The evening concluded with an orchestral showpiece, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a tone poem based on a series of paintings by Viktor Hartman, whose sudden death in 1875 devastated Mussorgsky. Originally a work for solo piano, it was orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, who exploited the full colors of the orchestra.
A series of brief episodes (11 movements in 30 minutes), it captures the delicacy of a watercolor, “Il vecchio castello” (“The old castle”), and the robustness of a crowd scene, “Limoges” (“the Marketplace”). It encompasses the silliness of the “Ballet of Chicks in their Shells” and the majesty of the final “The Great Gate of Kiev.”
Vänskä’s reading was a bit uneven, but the musicians played admirably. The brass, in particular, shone. It brought the evening to a tumultuous conclusion, with yet another standing ovation.
William Randall Beard writes about music.