Violinist Joshua Bell has made a tremendously successful career playing upon his listeners' heartstrings as capably as he does the strings of his Stradivarius.
Bell, an old-fashioned Romantic, is also an old-school virtuoso akin to such 20th-century predecessors as Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. Like them, he combines consummate technical skills with a special aptitude for communicating the emotional urgency of Romantic-era repertoire. You've heard of singers in the jazz and musical theater worlds who really know how to sell a song? Bell knows how to sell a violin concerto.
But he likes to channel his expert musicianship into more than that, and that's what makes this weekend's performances with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra so special.
Bell is playing one of the greatest of 19th century violin concertos, Max Bruch's flamboyant First. But the SPCO was also the first orchestra to invite the violinist to stretch out and show what he could do with symphonic repertoire back when he was one of its first artistic partners from 2004-2007. He returns to the first-among-equals role of concertmaster this weekend on symphonies by Mozart and Georges Bizet.
Judging from Thursday evening's concert at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall, Bell looks to be having a blast doing it. He brought such palpable energy and enthusiasm to Mozart's 25th Symphony that the other musicians seemingly sought to match his passion. And Bizet's First Symphony proved equally thrilling, especially during a breakneck finale in which the SPCO served a reminder of what an extraordinarily tight group it is.
Many in the almost-capacity crowd surely exited saying, "That was fun." And that may sound odd when one considers that both Mozart's 25th Symphony and Bruch's First Violin Concerto are minor-key compositions that can summon up anguish as readily as excitement. But it was hard not to smile when Bell started bouncing around on his chair at the Mozart symphony's opening, repeatedly swiveling to various sections of the orchestra to invite them into his high-energy playhouse. They responded with expertly executed dynamic contrast, thunder becoming whispers at the drop of a hat.
The Bruch concerto isn't the kind of music you customarily hear the SPCO play. It's a schmaltz fest more commonly the province of bigger bands than the three-dozen musicians onstage in St. Paul. But it's an ideal showpiece for a heart-on-his-sleeve performer like Bell, dripping with drama and bursting with opportunities to show off not only his technique but his emotional expressiveness. Both came through clearly in the abrupt shifts between guttural double stops and clear, soaring high notes in the concerto's finale.
Bizet's First Symphony felt something like a happy medium between the Mozart and Bruch works that preceded it. Written by the 17-year-old composer in 1855, it only intermittently sounds of its time, more often channeling the bright, brisk frivolity of Gioachino Rossini's operatic overtures from earlier in the century.
While Bell was an attention-grabbing leader on the Mozart, he chose to redirect the spotlight to his fellow musicians on the Bizet, and many shone brightly. None more so than principal oboist Cassie Pilgrim, who followed up some sweet solos on the Mozart with equally tantalizing lines on the Bizet, their lovely lyricism matched by fellow oboist Christine Kim and flutist Julia Bogorad-Kogan.
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: Violinist Joshua Bell.
When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.
Tickets: Free-$50, available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.