Joshua Bell (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night the Great Performers Series, presented by the San Francisco Symphony, continued with a visit to Davies Symphony Hall by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF). This English chamber orchestra, which was founded in 1959, was conducted by its current Music Director, violinist Joshua Bell. While the original group was a string ensemble (playing without a conductor), last night’s visiting ensemble included a chamber-scale complement of winds and brass, as well as a timpanist.
Bell prepared a traditional overture-concerto-symphony program for last night’s concert. However, the overture was anything but traditional. It was conceived by composer Edgar Meyer as a “compact” violin concerto written on a commission for Bell and the ASMF ensemble, which came at a time when the Bravo! Vail music festival requested an overture. The two projects were folded into one, which was an overture for violin and orchestra, first performed in Vail in June of 2017.
Meyer may be the most eclectic bass player in the business these days, working regularly with not only Bell but also the likes of Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and even James Taylor. The overture he composed was high-spirited unto an extreme, coming about as close as one could get to manic without going over the edge. Perhaps he welcomed the opportunity to write music for higher-pitched strings, whose physical properties would allow rapid playing less likely to be muddied than when played at much lower pitches. In the midst of this wild ride, the violin solo emerges as an intensely demanding perpetuum mobile on steroids. Bell responded to the challenges Meyer prepared like a duck takes to water.
As might be expected, the execution of that solo part demanded intense concentration, which Bell definitely knew how to deliver. That, however, was the rub. How could someone so focused on so many challenging passages have any cognitive cycles remaining to lead the ensemble?
Most likely the answer was that he couldn’t. Meyer had written a score in which all of the players, with guidance from their respective section leaders, could get by through playing against a shared metronome. The demands of the tempo allowed little room for any more nuanced approaches to performance, such as attentive phrasing. In other words, the piece was rather like a roller coaster, a thoroughly exhilarating wild ride that turned out not to go anywhere. For what it was, it was engagingly enjoyable; but it was also a flourish of style over substance.
However, if Bell could get away with little more than style in his overture, this luxury was not afforded by either the concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 218 in D major) or the symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (the “Pastoral” Opus 68 in F major). As a result, like Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each of these pieces was disappointing in its own way. Where the concerto was concerned, Bell never seemed to get beyond a command of the technical and expressive challenges posed for the soloist, meaning that his attention to the ensemble tended to be sketchy at best. As a result, there seemed to be little regard for Mozart’s consummate gift for establishing a witty give-and-take between soloist and ensemble in just about any concerto he every wrote. There was no sense that the music itself provided an intimate bond, a sense that San Francisco audiences were able to enjoy particularly well when Benjamin Beilman visited the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) as both Guest Concertmaster and soloist this past November. All of the notes may have been present, but any sense of Mozart himself was sorely missed.
For the Beethoven selection Bell chose to lead from the Concertmaster’s chair. My initial thought was that this might not be a bad idea. The leaders in the string section could approach each other as members of a string quartet, and the sections they were leading could follow suit. The winds and brass could then orient themselves through attentive listening to the strings.
This was a good idea in theory; but, in practice, it did not hold up for 50 measures (at most). By that time it had become painfully apparent than none of the ASMF players was particularly attuned to the critical role of listening in the act of playing. (This made for another sharp contrast with the experience of listening to NCCO.) As a result, over the course of the entire symphony, there was a clear sense that every member of the ensemble was going his/her own way (all they like sheep), with little guidance other than occasional timekeeping coming from Bell. The results were at their extreme during the fourth (Thunderstorm) movement, during which timpanist Adrian Bending managed to drown out everyone on stage with his period-appropriate hard mallets.
Back in the days when Neville Marriner was churning out ASMF recordings to beat the band, there were any number of scornful jibes that the group was all about quantity rather than quality. Bell has yet to show any signs that this trend has been reversing. Given that this ensemble is willing to show as much attention to living composers as those of past centuries, it is more than a little unfortunate that they cannot give better accounts of the extensive repertoire they supposedly command.