Mostly Mozart Festival in New York – Joshua Bell plays Bruch

Suite in D, BWV1069
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Joshua Bell (violin)

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Pablo Heras-Casado

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 5 August, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Pablo Heras-Casado. Photograph: © Miguel PeñalverFor the month-long Mostly Mozart Festival, Avery Fisher Hall’s seating arrangement is changed so that the audience surrounds the stage, which is moved closer towards the center of the hall, ostensibly to achieve a more intimate atmosphere. However, considering the patchiness of the Festival’s orchestra, this closeness is not at all appreciated.

With this new layout and with some added acoustic tiles on the ceiling, the sound in the hall was initially unrecognizable. Avery Fisher’s acoustics are notoriously challenging, but one would never normally call them resonant. Yet J. S. Bach’s Suite was murky-sounding. This acoustic was appealing in the opening ‘Overture’ and in the violin-led second ‘Minuet’, but the faster sections were unbearably blurred and the wind solos were lost in the swamp. At its best moments the music seemed like inoffensive wallpaper. Liveliness and joy were lacking.

Joshua Bell. Photograph: www.joshuabell.comJoshua Bell was soloist in Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto. Bell is completely in his element in schmaltzy 19th-century music, and he milked each phrase. One might hear more thoughtful interpretations of this piece, with more pacing of climaxes and variation of tone, but Bell will surpass any violinist in the raw passion department. He also proved that the fog that the orchestra was still producing was not the fault of the auditorium, as his violin rang out loud and clear in every note, except those covered by the irritatingly noisy brass section. There were just too many sloppy orchestral passages to write off as natural mishaps – the accompaniment was just plain bad.

Things did not improve much in the Mozart – this orchestra of professionals sounded like a mid-tier conservatory orchestra. In defense of the performance, there were moments of comic lightness, best appreciated by the audience members seated behind the orchestra who got to watch Pablo Heras-Casado’s cartoon-like arm-waving, reminiscent of a circus clown. None of this flailing translated to the music. While it was not as awful as the Bruch, one was constantly reminded of why Mozart’s music is so difficult to execute, despite the relative simplicity of the notes. Concertmaster Krista Bennion Feeney appeared engaged enough to lead her section in some elegant phrasing, yet the Andante’s recurring two-note passages symbolized the very definition of ‘plodding’. The heaviness of the final two movements was unrelenting, despite the orchestra’s modest size. Perhaps the players were overly reverent of the notes, but there was the overwhelming sense they could not see the forest for the trees, and that these trees were meant for firewood.

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