The Napa Valley is famous for its picturesque countryside, stunning weather and fine wine. With the ambitious Festival del Sole concluding their seventh season on Sunday night with a concert featuring two titans of classical music - Joshua Bell and Hélène Grimaud – they proved that “wine country” has even more to offer the Northern California region than that which makes them one of the premier destination spots in the world.

Joshua Bell © Chris Lee
Joshua Bell
© Chris Lee

The evening’s program, featuring the Russian National Orchestra, was somewhat shorter than is customary but nonetheless hugely enjoyable. With two major solo works – Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Barber’s Violin Concerto – the evening exuded strength and quality in both repertoire and artistry.

The prelude of the evening was a work entitled Blue Fire, conducted by composer Daniel Brewbaker himself. Commissioned by and written for Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, the title is derived from the writings of American psychologist James Hillman. The program notes state that Hillman was concerned “with living rather than resolving emotional complexities as a means of self revelation.” Blue Fire seemed similarly concerned with a tapestry of “living” moments rather than an overall conceptual theme which seemed apt considering the basis of its name. The work had notable moments of light charm with buoyant themes reappearing throughout in various guises and providing the audience with an array of differing moods and characters. Generally speaking, it was somewhat difficult to hear one character long enough to fully enjoy it. Just as I was getting a taste for one, I would suddenly be rushed onto the next. However, the composer led his piece with versatility, effectively enticing various contrasting colours from the orchestra in a piece that sounded complex and by no means easy to perform. At times, the orchestra sounded a little unsure, but the overall effect was positive.

With the audience suitably acclimated, the orchestra took a backseat for the remainder of the first half and were joined by pianist Hélène Grimaud in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, one of two outstanding piano concerti he wrote during the space of only two years at the beginning of the 1930s. Hélène Grimaud’s performance of the G major concerto was flawless. From the moment she walked on stage, she took control with strength and clarity. The opening of the first movement began with numerous technical passages of which she made light work. Sadly, the beautifully serene opening of the second movement was marred by coughing from the audience who were perhaps excitably restless after such an energetic opening to the work. There were even a couple of audible distractions from within the orchestra which Grimaud was clearly frustrated by. Nonetheless, she still eventually tamed the hall peacefully and with serenity, before concluding the piece with the same powerful playing that she had begun with.

The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the outstanding performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell. This particular concerto is perhaps one of the greatest and most well-known by an American composer. At the time of its inception – 1939 – many composers were heavily influenced by ideas such as atonality and serialism. Barber, however, remained resolute in his own voice and despite being criticized by some for being old-fashioned, his music was adored by audiences as much then as it is now.

Tonight’s performance was simply incredible. Bell performed this work from start to finish with complete assuredness, channeling a depth of expression and beauty out of every single nuance. The Russian National Orchestra performed with great sensitivity and were led well by conductor Riccardo Frizza. However, Bell was the clear general, leading with his entire body, his physical movement drawing even more life out of the music and pulling the audience along the journey both physically and emotionally. And not once did his energy relent. The final movement was sheer class, beginning with a lightning stream of notes without a single obvious blemish. It was no surprise that the entire audience leapt immediately to their feet with appreciation.

Congratulations are in order the organizers of Festival del Sole, who were able to bring two exceptional stars under the same roof. If there were any new audience members in attendance tonight, you can bet that they will return next year after experiencing such a thrilling showcase of talent.

***11