Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - Mendelssohn, Wieniawski & Beethoven - 03/19/18

Mendelssohn: Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream 
Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor 
Joshua Bell: Violin 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (Pastoral) 

After a musically quiet week, I hit the road again on Monday evening and went to David Geffen Hall for the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and its music director Joshua Bell, who was also going to fulfill the additional duties of conductor for the entire concert and soloist for the Wieniawski violin concerto. Because, after all, why not hire yourself and do as you please when you’re the boss?
Book-ended by the predictable but still rewarding crowd-pleasers that are the overture by Mendelssohn and the symphony by Beethoven, Polish composer Wieniawski’s second violin concerto stood out as the exciting intruder that all self-respecting classical music programs should have. While not exactly an obscure curiosity, it certainly does not have the mass appeal that its glamorous companions have been enjoying for many decades now, but still manages to make an appearance once in a while.
So it was with high expectations that my friend Christine and I took our orchestra seats in the packed concert hall. The British (and their American leader) had come, and we were more than ready for them. 

Written when Felix Mendelssohn was a mere 17-year-old youngster, his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned out to be as effortlessly enchanting and improbably mature as the unabashedly sunny Octet he had come up with the year before, and which has remained one of my all-time favorite musical pick-me-ups. Maybe inspired by the Shakespeare connection, definitely relying on their well-honed skills, the orchestra gave an impeccably glowing reading of it.
Throughout the years, I have heard Joshua Bell masterfully work his way through most of the extended violin concerto repertoire, but Wieniawski’s second effort was still missing. I had never heard it played by any other violinist either. But this frustrating situation came to an end on Monday night, when I finally had the opportunity to become acquainted with the highly lyrical work, which was serendipitously performed by the virtuoso who may very well have the sweetest tone of them all. This winning combination provided the rapt audience with 20 minutes of full-blown Romantic bliss, exquisite melodies and dazzling fireworks included.
Since the composer was a brilliant fiddler himself, it comes to no surprise that his second violin concerto makes the most of the instrument’s impressive range of possibilities. On Monday night, the soloist was also a brilliant fiddler, therefore it came to no surprise either that he readily handled the devilish technical challenges with disconcerting ease. The fact that the four rows of rambunctious high schoolers behind us were stunned into silent for the entirety of the three movements is ultimate proof that the experience was truly thrilling.
After intermission, everybody stayed in an uplifted mood with Beethoven’s vibrant “Pastoral” Symphony. Written in the same period as his unceremoniously ground-breaking fifth symphony, the more restrained sixth has kept a relatively lower profile (Not that hard!), yet never fails to charm the listener. Beethoven’s symphonies are so ubiquitous in concert halls all over the world that I rarely bother to go out of my way to hear them. And when I stumble upon one sooner than later, I always end up in awe of the man’s relentless creativity.
And sure enough, on Monday night, the composer’s musical genius – as well as his deep love for the countryside – were strongly palpable as the orchestra vividly expressed feelings of contentment and delight through the colorful evocations of bucolic scenery, singing birds, merry dancing, and the almighty storm. The tempo was sustained enough to keep the music flowing along nicely and gentle enough to allow the audience to revel in the joys of nature too... and eventually leave with a smile on their faces.