Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell

In more than a half-century of concertizing and recording, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has been so ubiquitously paired with conductor Neville Marriner (and, for a substantial period, with conductor Iona Brown), it’s easy to forget that the Academy started life as a conductor-less chamber orchestra. Indeed, even Marriner’s early performances with them were led from the concertmaster’s chair.

It was a pleasure to hear the ASMF at Strathmore Hall on Friday, playing once more as a true chamber ensemble, with nary a conductor’s podium in sight. Better still was watching popular violin virtuoso Joshua Bell take the concertmaster’s chair, in his new role as the Academy’s music director, and dig into an all-Beethoven program as a hard-working, first-among-equals member of the group.

(Charles Dharapak/Associated Press) - Violinist Joshua Bell performs at a Classical Music Student Workshop Concert hosted by first lady Michelle Obama, not pictured, in November of 2009 in the East Room of the White House.

For Bell’s fans, the centerpiece of the program was undoubtedly his beautifully turned reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, featuring cadenzas, by Bell himself, full of febrile arpeggios and passages of whispered intimacy. Bell’s lyrical approach to this work, coupled with his uncommon sweetness of tone, was well matched by the orchestra. Poise, scrupulous balancing of instrumental textures and elegance of tone have always been trademark qualities of the Academy’s playing, and the silken response of the strings and supple voicing of the winds heard on Friday reminded us of just how fine this orchestra is. And, with hand-in-glove dovetailing of solo and orchestral lines, Bell was so at one with his fellow musicians, they seemed to be breathing together.

But the true revelation at Friday’s concert was Bell the conductor. In Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and, even more so, in his Symphony No. 4, Bell alternated playing along with the first violins and conducting (with great physical animation) from his seat, sculpting the air expressively with his bow to bring forth a wealth of interpretive detail from the musicians.

If the ASMF had an Achilles’ heel under Marriner’s baton, it was a certain comfortable, middle-of-the-road safeness to their interpretations. Not so here. Under Bell’s leadership, Beethoven’s more demonstrative writing brought trenchant attacks and a volatile range of emotions, and the lyrical moments soared with soulfulness and a limpid beauty. Flowing tempos were underpinned by infectious rhythmic verve, and the scores emerged as unfailingly cogent and shapely. This was as superb a Beethoven Fourth as I’ve heard, delivered by a conductor of tremendous promise and genuine ideas — who also happens to be one heck of a violinist.

Banno is a freelance writer.

 
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