Say the name Joshua Bell and most will think of the violin virtuoso with the boyish, brown locks — not the music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. On Friday evening, Bell, the star violinist-turned-conductor, donned both hats at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, performing in lockstep with his chamber orchestra colleagues of five years in an unforgettable program that showcased the versatility of the ensemble and the soloist.
Renowned for its punctilious and conductor-less performances, the group could have breezed through Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture” on its own. But with Bell’s leading from the concertmaster’s seat, the group embodied the music director’s glowing interpretation in a symbiotic give-and-take.
That nurturing relationship continued in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218, during which Bell stood in the conductor’s position to direct and perform. As the orchestra’s sounds waxed and waned around his violin’s sweet, plaintive phrases, Bell captivated with his charismatic playing, turning even a few solo bars into cadenzas, much to the delight of his fans but perhaps to the chagrin of Mozart purists.
If Bell’s bow served as baton slightly too often in Mendelssohn’s overture, it directed the chamber group well in the composer’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, mostly because the violinist could not resist playing along. Together, director and orchestra displayed innate synchronicity, including in the jovial Allegro’s meticulous articulations, the Andante’s mystical ease, the third movement’s elegant, lilting melodies and the finale’s impish romp.