Venerable Academy Shows an American Openness

United StatesUnited States Edgar Meyer, Mozart, Beethoven: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields / Joshua Bell (conductor and violin), presented by San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 11.3.2018. (HS)

Joshua Bell (c) Chris Lee

Edgar Meyer — Overture for Violin and Orchestra

Mozart — Violin Concerto No.4 in D major

Beethoven — Symphony No.6 in F major ‘Pastoral’

It’s hard to shake the notion that Joshua Bell has made a significant impact on the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra. Under its previous music directors, including founder Sir Neville Marriner and longtime director Iona Brown, the chamber-sized ensemble cultivated an air of suave precision, with a warm sound, aiming for the ultimate in refinement.

The Academy’s visit to San Francisco last Sunday, in the expansive spaces of Davies Symphony Hall, revealed — dare it be said — a sort of American openness. That typifies Bell’s violin playing, a marvel of technical accuracy and instinctive, satisfying interpretations that never turn willful.

Losing nothing in precision, the orchestra took on a breezy frankness that paid dividends in a charming program of Mozart, Beethoven and the American bass virtuoso (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Edgar Meyer. The strings traded some of their traditional richness for a welcome expansiveness and the woodwinds seemed to favor bright timbres in Beethoven’s springtime ‘Pastoral’ symphony. It’s an outdoorsy piece, after all, and the refreshing sound palette made the most of the jaunty tunes, the thunderstorm, and the closing, peaceful Shepherd’s Song.

Conducting from the concertmaster’s chair — a return to Marriner’s original role from when the orchestra was formed in 1959 — Bell favored brisk tempos and bouncy rhythms, even propelling the pulse in the Andante so the music never flagged. The performance reveled in the music’s joy, rather than searching for anything much deeper.

A bit more of a probing attitude informed the performances of the two violin-solo pieces in the first half. In Meyer’s ten-minute Overture for Violin and Orchestra, Bell traced gentle curlicues against a soft pulse in the strings. Standing in front of the orchestra and reading from the score, he used his bow to ‘conduct’ when he wasn’t playing (even when, technically, it may not have been necessary). Though starting quietly, dissonances and rhythmic turns soon sneak in that find variations within the established quick pulse of nine beats to the bar.

The violin line extends into complex technical challenges that Bell dashed off with panache, before all subsides into a sigh of a finish. Written for the Bravo! Vail music festival in 2017, this is not a standard whip-‘em-up program opener but one that offers reflection and subtle musical delights.

In its way Meyer’s piece nods toward the Mozart Violin Concerto No.4 that followed, in which the tunes in the Rondeau finale shift from a dainty dance in 4 to a jaunty 6/8 — a pairing that returns several times. Throughout, Bell’s unaffected style and the more open sound of the orchestra combined to lend a sense of informality and freshness. The second movement Andante cantabile maintained the same casual atmosphere, reflective and nurturing, leading to a finale that picked up each new tune with a disarming sense of discovery.

Bell’s own original cadenzas hewed closely to Mozart’s style, using elements from the surrounding music to create showoff moments. One sticks out in memory: pairing a high trill played with his fourth fingers on the E string while recalling the opening march on the lower ones. Fiercely difficult to execute, it felt as natural as could be.

That pretty well sums up the whole program, getting the devilishly hard to sound as easy and free as it seems on the surface.

Harvey Steiman

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