In a sold-out Concertgebouw, with added chairs on the stage, a highlight of the Robeco Summer Nights programming offered some powerful emotional moments, while keeping the general tone light-hearted. Joshua Bell led his Academy of St Martin in the Fields on an adventurous, crowd-pleasing journey that demonstrated his ensemble’s versatility. The American soloist-conductor offered very elegant, top notch playing in his solo passages, while at same time offering a very different way of conducting. Bach, Barber, Piazzolla, and Tchaikovsky offered various temperaments perfectly tailored for a summer night.

Joshua Bell © Marc Hom
Joshua Bell
© Marc Hom

The opening piece gave the informed audience what they came for: Bell performing as soloist with his orchestra accompanying in Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major. The dating of this early work is a bit complicated, it suggests it stems from his young adult years, in a period where he didn’t compose religious music, focusing on several violin concertos. When it came to guiding the chamber ensemble, Bell led with his body: bending through the knees, swinging angularly back and forth, using his bow as baton. He cleverly turned his theatrical physicality into an energetic conductor. Throughout, the harpsichord offered elegant, artful accents. All that was lacking was an emotional resonance. Still, the performance established the festive summer ambience.

Then the orchestra changed its gears to the spirited melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Romance ensued in this swooning rendition, as Bell turned it into quite the tearjerker. The august melody of the opening Pezzo in forma di sonatina enraptured the listener transporting you into a thoroughly romantic atmosphere. Robert Smissen’s dynamite viola solo powerfully elevated the Élégie. The strings in the finale reached exuberant heights when the folksy tune and the returning opening theme brought the piece elegantly together.

Intended as the slow movement for a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings turned out powerful enough to stand on its own. Bowdlerised by popular culture, this resonating piece creates all sorts of moving moments for people everywhere. Continuing its lush string sound from Tchaikovsky, the ensemble evoked the exquisite lyricism flowing from Barber’s long melodic lines. Sustaining a delicate suspense throughout, Bell’s guidance also added an enigmatic element. The audience was left behind in a spellbound silence for quite some time before the rapturous applause.

In the late 1990s, Leonid Desyatnikov arranged Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires for solo violinist and string orchestra. The Russian composer accentuated the connection to Vivaldi’s Seasons adding several more quotations, which were thrilling to recognise as Bell elucidated these passages with well-balanced transparency. Bell got into his “theatrical fiddler mode” for this entertaining rendition, during which he created some sultry and brooding moods. The orchestra clearly enjoyed demonstrating the col legno special effects. The bassist in particular had a lot of fun with generating the thumps from his instrument creating much of the temperamental Argentinian ambience. The adventurous programming tonight kept the listener constantly engaged, and while Bell played terrifically, overall, something felt missing from this ensemble that usually possesses more radiance.

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