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Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Thanks for a Reliable Thanksgiving Violin

Thanksgiving is a time to feel grateful for what we take for granted the rest of the year. So it’s only fitting that violinist Joshua Bell will perform with the New York Philharmonic this week.

Bell is one of the biggest and best-selling classical music stars and he tours extensively. But he doesn’t take on new work with the enthusiasm of Rene Fleming, and he doesn’t reveal Bach’s brilliant alliances with social justice, such as Yo-Yo Ma. Less seen by the press than these two – and many others much less well known – Bell is just acting, rarely straying from the absolute center of the standard repertoire these days.

But if he’s just acting, the game is almost supernaturally beautiful. On Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall, he did not make a single ugly sound in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. At 53, his face remains supernaturally youthful, and his tone is also wrinkle-free. While the solo part in this work is often an abundant unwinding of gold wire, Bell’s wire was always shiny and smooth, never thin or cutting.

When he was not playing, he swayed a little to the orchestral accompaniment, and sometimes completely turned away from the audience to see the mass of musicians. (While Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the Philharmonic, was on the podium in Tully, Bell, who ran St. Martin’s Academy in the fields for almost 10 years, is now accustomed to leading the ensemble during solo performances.) At one point he even slightly ecstatic stamped on the stage.

But while Bell is a genius partner for the ensemble, there is something balanced about him – always pleasant, never intense or unexpected. For better or for worse, it is itself reliability.

He came closest to surprise in the cadenza he created for the first movement, which featured brooding dissonances and lively crossings of strings. But you have to be generous to describe even that as really passionate.

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The Philharmonic played with mahogany-rich strings in the first movement, and its horns sounded graceful in the second. In the third episode, van Zweden walked along a brilliant allegro, more aristocratic than gay or wild. It seemed perfectly fitting for Bell, whose acting smiles but never smiles and, of course, never loses his cool.

The program was the inverse of the usual arrangement of the halves of the concert. Beethoven’s Concerto, the most meaningful piece for 45 minutes, was left alone before the intermission; a pause was followed by a short but meaningful and varied Duo Ye for the Chen Yi chamber orchestra, followed by a 25-minute suite by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.

These last two pieces are well played together. Written in the 1980s and inspired by a folklore performance by Chen he attended around a campfire in a Chinese village, Duo Ye is full of life in passages for sharp, crisp percussion and mystery in its dreamy duo of viola and vibraphone. Perhaps it was a juxtaposition of the program, but Stravinsky seemed to be in the air: some moments in “Duo Ye” evoked a friendlier “Spring Sacred”, others – the sharp angularity of “Les Noces” with wooden blocks – both plays, like in Chen, placed in the primitive world, modernism was born.

Pulcinella was also a modernist look back, but with the graceful energy of early 18th century Italian music, which Stravinsky transformed into light but delicate arrangements. Featuring the flamboyant, upbeat playing of flutist Alison First and the featured string quintet in the center of the performance, the eight sections were festive on Wednesday.

New York Philharmonic Orchestra

This program continues until Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.

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