Symphony Hall sprang to life on an unusually warm Sunday afternoon as the Celebrity Series of Boston brought the Academy of St Martin in the Fields back for its tenth appearance overall and its third under music director/soloist, Joshua Bell. The overture to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which sets the manic mood for Beaumarchais’ folle journée, set the tone for the first half, mercurial, witty, with a helter-skelter tumble of whispering voices and agitated outbursts. Bell led from a black, padded rectangular stool slightly raised above level of the orchestra’s silver grey chairs. An occasional swoosh of his bow sufficed; body English accomplished the rest.

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields © Robert Torres
Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
© Robert Torres

Anyone unfamiliar with the program might have thought a Rossini overture was next, except for Bell standing at the soloist spot center stage. What sounded like the work of “The Swan of Pesaro” proved to be the operatic first violin concerto by “The Witch’s Son” Niccolò Paganini. Paganini was known for conjuring various voices both animal and human, once even fabricating a lovers’ quarrel between the E (woman) and G (man) strings alone. The high-spirited mimicry here imbues the concerto with the madcap theatricality of comic opera. Paganini treats the orchestra for the most part like his other favorite instrument, the guitar, as a discreet accompanist to the violin’s many wordless songs The soloist carries the weight. Bell didn’t try to impress with speed nor call attention to his virtuosity. Expression and color were paramount with notes sounding clearly, a lighter tone and touch for the outer movements, darker and deeper colors for the second movement’s plaint where you could almost hear the violin sigh, “Ohimè!”, at the end. He performed his own cadenza, so fresh and in-the-moment that it left one wondering whether, in composing it, he had allowed himself the leeway to improvise. The mirthful exuberance of the final movement ended the concerto with a wink and a grin, firmly implanting its main theme in the ear where it lingered to such an extent people in line for intermission refreshments were humming it.

Brahms arrived to dispel all the frivolity and allow the ASMF to lavish its virtuosity and precision on symphonic repertoire not usually associated with chamber orchestras. Uniform bowing once again created an expressive string blend with more weight this time than in the Mozart and a spectrum of crepuscular colors. Instead of the overture’s crisp call and response between sections, a riverine flow with eddies from winds and brass cresting and falling prevailed. Those critics who used the words “thick” and “muddy” to describe Brahms’ orchestration would have been struck dumb by the transparency here, thanks to a smaller complement of brass, split with the horns to the conductor’s left, and the placement of the timpani off to the side right. The triangle, seated by the woodwinds, was completely audible for a change. 

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields © Robert Torres
Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
© Robert Torres

A rhythmic pulse stretching and contracting propelled the four movements, voicing the pathos of the outer ones, the Orphic repose of the second, and the joyful respite of the third. The ensemble increased the tension with each variation in the final movement. Just as the momentum began to build toward the conclusion, Bell had to drop out briefly to attend to his instrument, but the group quickly recouped from any loss of focus. Like last week’s Beethoven with the Handel and Haydn Society, the ASMF’s Brahms charged the familiar with the excitement of the new.

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