On July 23, 1964, the Meadow Brook Music Festival opened as the summer home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 50 years and a day later, the orchestra celebrated this partnership with a sold-out concert featuring the violinist Joshua Bell. Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern served as guest conductor on this cool, crisp evening, and led his charges through a magical evening.

Joshua Bell © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Joshua Bell
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Glinka’s overture from Ruslan and Ludmilla makes a wonderful curtain-raiser, and worked well here, the orchestral contributions being full of zest and energy under Stern, who was not guilty of taking this music too slowly! The DSO strings and woodwinds excelled and the brass was on its very best behavior.

Following this, Joshua Bell dazzled in a virtuoso attack on Ravel’s Tzigane. It’s Ravel that doesn’t typically sound like Ravel, but is full of strong melodic lines and certainly counts as a crowd-pleaser. The Detroit players remained impressive, despite having far less to do.

From here, we entered the real meat of the concert. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is not always a sure winner, but in the hands of a genuine podium presence like Michael Stern, it soared. Focused on color and maximum contrast, each movement was carefully balanced. A huge range of dynamics was on display, as were elastic tempos that allowed for real excitement. The finale, taken more slowly than usual, was effective.

Following the intermission, Kodály’s Dances of Galánta sparkled. Stern had a great time, again wringing drops of color from every section of the orchestra. Stern’s latest album featured Bartók, exceptionally done, so it’s no wonder that this was equally successful. Kodály may not command the concert appeal of his fellow Hungarian, but this was a favorite composer — and work — of former DSO Music Director Antal Doráti. Intentional or not, this terrific performance paid tribute both to his legacy and to that of the orchestra.

Finally, Bell returned to star in a gorgeously conceived reading of Bruch's popular Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. Stern is the son of the late, great violinist Isaac Stern. The orchestral contributions were dynamic and fully worthy of sharing the spotlight with Bell, who still amazes through his tremendous enthusiasm and energy. Backed by a clearly happy DSO, he wove melodies effortlessly. Sweet and tender in the Adagio movement, he easily won over his audience even before the final bars. The rapt audience attention throughout, as well as the repeated ovations that followed, served as a strong reminder that Detroit is still alive and well. I hope that the enthusiastic reactions on display will encourage the DSO and Meadow Brook to rekindle a relationship that saw greats like James Levine and Robert Shaw once grace its stage.