I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle, returning at last to Verizon Hall in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center this past Friday for a matinee featuring violinist Joshua Bell. It had been a year and ten months since I had attended a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one conducted by Edward Gardner. Between these dates swelled tides of death and destruction, the silencing of concert halls and theaters, the terrifying unpredictability of a scourge that threatened to lay waste to all humanity and its hoard of artifacts, potions, and anthems.

Joshua Bell
© Benjamin Ealovega

While the pandemic is not over, the gradual reappearance of live concerts delivers a message of hope, a ray of light. For this program, Bell was billed as leader and soloist, assuming both roles with engaging capability. The concert opened with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor, composed in the 1860s, a mainstay of the violin concerto repertoire, but seeming to be less often performed in recent decades. But that may change. Leading the otherwise conductor-less orchestra with his bow, Bell drew from his instrument the freshest, most inevitable tones, flowing like liquid silver under a touch that was vibrant but delicately restrained. 

Sweeping without pause from movement to movement, the work is sweet without being saccharine, and Bell’s direction, no less than his playing, emphasized a spontaneous expression of Bruch’s score. From throaty lower register to the violin’s silky heights, this is lush, romantic music, in the hands of a master of that idiom. Bell recognizes today’s audiences desire for not only passion and intensity in their music, but also in the facial and bodily expressions of the performing artists. These qualities Bell brings to his performances, doing honor to the composer and delighting his watchers and listeners as well. 

Throughout the program, volume and velocity were the order of the day. Orchestras are going to continue to perform louder and faster, as audiences demand more stimulation after being pent up for two years. Strings, French horns and timpani boldly took the stage in Bell’s baton-less conducting of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4 in A major, the “Italian” (hardly a woodwind was heard), creating a perhaps too-exciting, Star-Wars-type sound explosion. While Bell’s energetic leadership created a soundscape somewhat chunky for my taste, the resulting musical tapestry was original, enlivening, and a hit with the large audience that thronged the tiers of Verizon Hall.

Between the two large-scale works, however, Bell placed a shy but beguiling flower: Florence Price’s lyrical Adoration for violin solo. Orchestrated by Jim Gray, this tender musical morsel of just four minutes in length is another feather in the cap of an African-American woman who is quickly joining the ranks of much-loved 20th century composers. Bell’s playing of this gentle tune was simply divine. For a few quiet moments, the sweet sound soared, and our hearts with it.