Skip to main content

By purchasing tickets to any La Jolla Music Society event, you agree to our COVID-19 Policy. Learn more.

REVIEW: Joshua Bell, Academy of St. Martin orchestra offer mostly lively program of Bach, Barber & Beethoven

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
March 15, 2022

 

There is a well-known phenomenon at orchestra concerts: the more empty seats in the second half, the more famous the soloist in the first. Call it Celebrated Soloist Syndrome.

The San Diego Civic Theatre had a classic case of it Monday evening in a program by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. In a concert sponsored by the La Jolla Music Society, popular violinist Joshua Bell performed concertos by J.S. Bach and Samuel Barber in the first half.

Sure enough, following intermission there were conspicuously more vacant seats. Which was odd considering that in the second half, Joshua Bell returned to the stage in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55.

As his predecessor Neville Marriner did, Bell conducts the Academy orchestra from the concertmaster’s chair. Sitting only feet away from where he stood as a soloist in the first half, Bell led the musicians in an energetic but unsatisfying performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

Modern orchestras opt to use their full contingent of strings when playing the “Eroica,” which gives it more weight. This is an apt approach considering that with this symphony, Beethoven uplifted the genre from pleasant entertainment to profound work of art.

With seven first violins, six seconds, four violas, four cellos, and two basses, the Academy orchestra has a bit more muscle in the lower strings than the typical American chamber orchestra. Even so, they made no substantial improvement to the sound of the “Eroica.” The heroic force of Beethoven’s music was diminished in their performance.

In a smaller venue such as the Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla or a larger hall with better acoustics, they would have had more impact, but the Civic Theatre drained away their clearly visible vigor, despite excellent solo work from oboist John Roberts, flutist Adam Walker, timpanist Tom Lee and the horn section.

Musical results were markedly better in the first half. The Academy orchestra, with its many recordings in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing the music of the Baroque era. They don’t use period instruments, but they had a proper sensibility for Bach’s Violin Concertos in A Minor, BWV 1041, with John Constable’s continuo stylings jangling away on harpsichord in the background.

To my ears, Bell’s tone was a little too pretty for this concerto — I missed the earthiness of a gut-strung violin’s low notes. His technique and intonation however were impeccable in a satisfying performance.

The best confluence of soloist, orchestra, and composition occurred with Barber’s Violin Concerto, Opus 14. It’s frequently programmed these days (over 25 recordings available now), but back in 1980 there was only recording of it by Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and the NY Philharmonic.

Bell’s lush tone and agile virtuosity were perfectly suited to Barber’s Concerto. In the first movement he beautifully spun out the lyrical first theme and crisply sounded the folk-like second theme. In the second movement, Bell sweetly played the achingly lovely melody, building to a sweeping high point that provoked applause when the movement ended. He dug into the nonstop whirlwind of the third movement, playing with grit not heard elsewhere on the program.

The orchestra displayed tight ensemble, all the more impressive for not being actively conducted. The ensemble work of the string section in the jagged melodies of the third movement was all the more thrilling for its precision, and clarinetist James Burke and oboist John Roberts smoothly and expressively played their solos in the first two movements.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.