Bell melds with ASO for Brahms Violin Concerto

Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert featured violin superstar Joshua Bell performing the Brahms Violin Concerto. A big Romantic work, the Brahms is technically challenging, full of double-stops and rapid-fire passages. It is also famously generous, with the orchestra playing a much larger role than is customary in a concerto.

Bell’s technical prowess is beyond reproach, and he can produce pure, focused tones as needed. He likes to mess around with tempos, which can cause coordination problems, but on this night, he seemed to have a sort of mind-meld going on with ASO music director Robert Spano. The orchestra was right in sync, and managed its own virtuosic displays in the explosive first movement and the sweet adagio. Bell wrote his own cadenza, a fiendishly tough Paganini-like showpiece that left the audience breathless.

It was all a fine show and definitely an audience pleaser. But for a musician of Bell’s stature, the question is more about whether he penetrated the Brahms’ surface: whether he offered fresh insights and genuine feeling for the work. Bell, one of the busiest people in classical music, has become a conductor and crossover artist. He has the kind of dazzling showmanship audiences relish, all on display in the Brahms. All of which is nice. But somehow this was a performance that left me wanting a bit more.

Charles Zoll, a graduate student at McGill University, was the winner of the Rapido! Composition Contest, sponsored by the Atlanta Chamber Players and the Antinori Foundation. The prize includes a commission for a work to be performed by the ASO, and the result, “Asimov at Star’s End,” opened the concert. Traversing in some detail “the five books of the Foundation series” by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, it might just have the most complex program of any 12-minute piece ever written. The work’s episodic nature allows for a kaleidoscope of colors and textures. Wildly ambitious, it at least provided a storm of youthful energy.

Inserted into the program without fanfare was a performance of Paul Hindemith’s 1934 work, “Mathis der Maler.” A short “symphony” drawn from his opera of the same name, it was once popular but has fallen on hard times and has not been heard in Atlanta in 25 years. That’s unfortunate, as the performance here was one of the highlights of the entire season.

The opera is based on the life of Matthias Grünewald, an artist during the Protestant Reformation. It deals with the role of the artist in a time of political upheaval, and was banned by the Nazis. There’s an important spiritual element that Spano captured nicely. Along the way, we got a model of clean playing, with sections performing in perfect unison and with organlike chords.

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