Review: Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Violinist Joshua Bell at Strathmore

All eyes were on Joshua Bell during the Academy of St Martin in the Fields performance, although only one of the three pieces played by the world-renowned chamber orchestra featured him. Although the chamber orchestra or Joshua Bell could command a multiple standing ovation performance, the joining of the two brought a magnitude of emotions far beyond what could be counted. Together, they brought new life to oft-heard orchestral pieces.

Joshua Bell and St Martin in the Fields Orchestra. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.
Joshua Bell and St Martin in the Fields Orchestra. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

Two of the orchestral pieces by Felix Mendelssohn were reflective of specific geographic locales.  The first, The Hebrides Ouverture (Fingal’s Cave), evoked the stark beauty of a sea cave on the uninhabited Scottish island of Staffa known for its arched roof and outstanding acoustics. Mendelssohn’s piece reflected the stark black columns, arching roof and echoing sounds of the waves in Fingal’s Cave. The stand-alone tone poem exhibited both the brilliance of the chamber orchestra and the subtle guidance of Bell who sat only a bit apart from the Concert Master. Unlike a standard conductor, Bell played with the first violin section and synchronized the orchestra with body movement and occasional direct signal with his bow to draw in and layer the sound of the orchestra’s sections.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 90, A Major (Italian), played after the intermission, was a study in perfecting the subtleties of various textures and speed in each movement. This was particularly evident in the second movement during which the cellos provided the underlying core personifying the specified Andante con moto, or walking pace. Throughout the Symphony, I was enthralled with the gamboling of double reeds (bassoon, oboe and english horn) and French horns. Bell, again sitting with the first violin section, could be seen as the choreographer and principal dancer, with his swaying movement spreading virally throughout the violin and viola sections.

Bell took center stage in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4, K.218, D Major.  His sound and phrasing brought one on a magical musical tour. The sound of the orchestra grew organically under Bell’s leadership while his violin danced above. The third movement, Rondeau, was the best rendition I have heard. I could not help but be drawn onto its enchanting joy ride.  The audience leapt to its feet for three rounds of  standing ovations immediately as he brought his bow to his side.

The same scene was repeated at the conclusion with enthusiasm rewarded with an encore of a short, mostly presto, piece by Sergei Prokofiev which left a bounce in one’s step.

John Steinmetz, in How to Enjoy a Live Concert, wrote, “The listener’s job is very simple: Be affected by the music.” One could not help being affected in many ways by the emotional performance of Joshua Bell and Academy of St Martin in the Fields at at The Music Center at Strathmore last night.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell played for one night only, March 18, 2016, at The Music Center at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future Strathmore events, go to their calendar of events.


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