Joshua Bell will perform with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on March 22 at the Mondavi Center. Courtesy photo


Joshua Bell, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields return, with Bell as soloist and conductor

By From page A11 | March 18, 2014

That’s the ticket

What: Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 22

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $150 general, $62.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787

Audiences at the Mondavi Center have seen Joshua Bell in recital several times during the past 11 years. And various iterations of The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields have appeared in Davis as well.

On Saturday, March 22, Bell and the Academy will visit the Mondavi Center together, with Bell appearing with his violin (as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto) and as his more recent role as conductor (the Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart, and the Symphony No. 3 by Beethoven).

Bell was named music director of the Academy in 2011, and assumed the post the following year; in 2013, they released an album featuring the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven. Bell also continues to perform on his own during portions of the year as a soloist and chamber musician.

The concept of a soloist/conductor was common in Mozart’s day, but is something of a novelty in our era, though it seems to be coming back into favor. Mondavi audiences have seen at least two examples — Nadja Salerno-Sonnenburg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, who visited several years ago, and Pinchas Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who visited in January.

When Zukerman performed in a concerto, he stood at center stage, and when he wasn’t playing his violin, he’d turn around and use his bow like an oversized baton. And when Zukerman led the orchestra in works on which he didn’t play his violin, he behaved very much like a conventional conductor.

Salerno-Sonnenburg, on the other hand, likes to lead from the concertmaster’s seat, at the head of the violin section, and sometimes stands when she’s a soloist in a concerto.

So The Enterprise couldn’t resist asking Bell about his approach during a recent phone interview.

“When I do the concerto, I do what Zukerman did — I play the concerto and turn around and conduct with my bow or my hands,” Bell replied. “When I do an overture or a symphony, I do sit in the concertmaster’s chair.

“Ninety percent of the way I prepare the orchestra (as soloist and conductor) is the same as any conductor (would do),” Bell said. “But the orchestra can play without a conductor; just waving the arms does not make the orchestra play. A good conductor knows when to put in the emphasis, and when to let them play and not beat out everything.”

Bell added that serving as both soloist and conductor in the Brahms Violin Concerto is “a lot of work,” because between his duties playing the violin — in a concerto with a highly virtuosic part — and his duties leading the orchestra, Bell will have “not a second of rest, and that’s exhausting. And then to conduct the Beethoven Third Symphony (‘Eroica’) in the concert’s second half … that can be quite tiring, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Bell also said he finds playing the Brahms concerto to be particularly satisfying — “(Brahms) uses the violin in ways that are more violinistic (than most concertos), perhaps because of the help Brahms got from his friend Joachim,” one of the leading violinists of his day. “You can dig into it, it’s less exposed.”

The Enterprise also asked Bell about his take on Beethoven. In January, Mondavi audiences heard Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra offer a reading of the Beethoven Fifth that was more polite (and less fate-driven) than most. And Zukerman’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was gently  pastoral.

But in March, pianist Murray Perahia gave a rambunctious, at times feverish, performance of Beethoven’s “Appasionata” Sonata at Mondavi. Yet going back to 2012, Mondavi audiences heard Emmanuel Ax on a fortepiano with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, bringing out a delicacy  and what conductor Nicholas McGegan described as a “candlelit” quality in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

So what sort of ideas would Bell bring to the Beethoven Fifth?

Bell cautioned that the question involved different works, and noted that “Beethoven himself was more than one thing” as a composer. “But with symphonies like the Fifth or the Third, (Beethoven) grabs you, sort of shaking his fist at the heavens, it’s sort of a cliché. You really want to bring out both sides” — alternating moments of contented perspective with others in which the composer’s ambitious energy and sometimes combative manner take the lead, Bell indicated.

The March 22 concert is at 8 p.m. in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall. Tickets are $150 general, $62.50 for UC Davis students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

Jeff Hudson

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