Sunday, May 03, 2009

Joshua Bell plays Saint-Saens

I don’t know why but I thought Joshua Bell was English, and so was surprised to discover last week, just before his concert on Friday, that he is in fact from Bloomington, Indiana. Owning such boyish good looks, he is astonishingly the ripe old age of 42. He has already had a long career, having debuted with Riccardo Muti and The Philadelphia Orchestra when he was only 14. 28 years in the business, and still looking as fresh as a daisy.

I was really looking forward to hear him, not just because I have heard of him, but also because he was playing a composer I like. I know Saint-Saëns by his symphonies, and to listen to a violin concerto would be a revelation. The concerto is wonderful, especially the second movement when the violin rises into stratospheric heights. Bell made the ethereal eerily lyrical. The gypsy-influenced music in the third movement was played with verve and sensitivity, I thought. And yet, and yet. I could not put my finger on it until TCH used the word “aloof.” The word seemed wrong at first, since Bell was obviously passionate about the music he was playing. TCH thought there did not seem to be much warmth between soloist and orchestra. Precision, yes, under Alan Gilbert’s baton, but not warmth. I thought perhaps he was somewhat aloof from the audience. He was so caught up in the music that he had forgotten us. And I experienced that forgetfulness as Olympian. A critic, raving about another performance, said that Bell played like a god. He was, that night, Apollonian.

Dvorak’s The Golden Spinning Wheel (1896) opened the program. The composer wrote a series of symphonic poems based on Karel Jaromir Erben’s A Garland of National Myths, a collection of folk stories set as poetical ballads and fairy tales in verse. The story of the Spinning Wheel goes like this (I summarize the summary by Otakar Sourek, the father of Dvorak studies, and translated by Roberta Finlayson Samsour):

King falls in love with and wants to marry the step-daughter of old hag. Old hag kills her, takes her eyes, feet and hands, and passes her own daughter off as the dead woman at the king’s castle. Mysterious old man gets the step-daughter’s feet, hands and eyes back by exchanging for them, respectively, a golden spinning wheel, a golden distaff, and a golden spindle. The hag’s daughter plies the wheel, and it sings out the crime. The king finds his beloved alive, having been resurrected by the mysterious old man, takes her as his true wife, and throws the murderesses to the wolves.

Martinu’s Symphony No. 4 closed the program. I was too sleepy to pay attention to it. It sounded all shimmer and no structure.


Con said...

While I'm very impressed about all the research you wrote on the Dvorak Golden Spinning Wheel, I'm saddened that you could dismiss the Martinu Symphony No. 4 in just three curt sentences. That symphony is fantastic! You just need to hear a compelling performance. Actually, Martinu's last three symphonies (4, 5 and 6) are all great, and No. 5 is especially exciting.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Con, I will not close my mind to Martinu, I promise.