The Saturday night performance is often a special one, despite not being the finale in this series of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which have featured Joshua Bell playing the wonderful Violin Concerto In D Major by Johannes Brahms. The premiere of this work was played by Brahms’ good friend and violinist Joseph Joachim with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. That night, Joachim played the piece along with the violin concerto of Ludwig van Beethoven, another highly celebrated piece in the standard repertoire for violin virtuosi. Unfortunately today, at least with the BSO, soloists only play one of usually three numbers, but in honesty, I can speak for myself when I say that an entire concert program featuring Bell would have been most welcome.
The other pieces in tonight’s performance were Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1945). The highlight of these pieces was the BSO’s masterful execution of the Infernal Dance of the Firebird. There is nothing like the majesty of the live performance, and among the pieces in Firebird, the Infernal Dance is quickly becoming my favorite, for its managed chaos, humor, and for its ability to exploit the full dramatic potential of a symphony orchestra. Only when every member of the orchestra is confident enough to react together can a performance like this be pulled off perfectly, as it was tonight. More than once, this piece brought conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier off of his feet in what was amusingly a ballet all his own. I gained appreciation for the Firebird Suite on this second live performance, but it will take the full ballet, I think, to make me a true fan.
Alas, the Brahms came and went all too quickly for me, but not without leaving an indelible mark on my understanding of the piece — again. Tuesday night’s performance especially gave me a new perspective on the Adagio, which remains emotionally unmatched in my mind, though beautiful in tonight’s performance. Bell started out the first movement somewhat rusty again, slightly lacking polish on certain albeit difficult chords and notes in the highest positions on the E. He recovered, I think, quicker tonight than he had on Tuesday, and it was largely a non-issue. It did sound like he made an early entrance on one of the final chords of the last movement, as the orchestra trailed behind him after their two measures of rests. Nevertheless, the story of tonight’s performance lies in Bell’s short bow techniques and his cadenza, which may well have been without flaw in execution.
I was particularly impressed with the cleanness of Bell’s spiccato on several occasions, though the bowing technique that stands out most in my mind occurred during the cadenza of the first movement, which I learned from the program notes to be his own. Filled with rich double stops that contrast with the ethereal quality of harmonics, Bell meticulously hints at Brahms’ first movement themes and only rarely states them outright. His harmonics had a sweet quality, and I suspect that one comment from someone later about his “thin tone” (not even close) had to do with the misunderstanding of this technique. I am fortunate to have heard this cadenza now twice, and I’m eager to hear a recording of it, if I can find one. Perhaps someone recorded the Friday afternoon performance, which I think was broadcast on WGBH here in Boston. Of all of the cadenzas for this piece I have heard, I think I genuinely favor this one, more than even the Heifetz cadenza that is echoed by Vadim Repin on his recent recording of the concerto. To be able to hear it on demand would be very valuable to me, especially if there exists a transcription somewhere outside Bell’s own head!
It is said that Brahms made some “corrections” to the piece after Joachim’s premiere of it in 1879, and I do not know if the “original” has survived, especially in the hands of the composer himself, who was notorious for destroying works (and letters) that he did not feel met his high standards of quality. To be able to hear that piece is slightly more than a historical novelty to the fan, but I sincerely hope that Bell’s cadenza does not become a similar footnote in the annals of an obscure history of this timeless piece of music.
If ever the recording of tonight’s performance is heard, there are two distinct and possibly embarrassing contributions that I’ve made to it. No, I was not the guy who clapped early immediately following the Infernal Dance (well before the end of the piece). Rather, as it is with some regularity, I may have started the applause following the Brahms, and there’s some fool who shouts “Encore” a couple of times at the end. Ahem.
The encore happened.
Probably ten percent of the audience had already left by this point (never, ever leave before the end of a sporting event, good movie, or concert), and Bell took the stage, tuned briefly, and made a statement to the audience about how Bach or Brahms would be appropriate here, though I did not hear his entire message from the orchestra 27th row stage left. Bell decided against Bach or Brahms, much to my disappointment, and proceeded to play a very serious solo of Souvenir d’Amérique … that descends into the classic and much loved tune Bingo. As in, “there was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o. B-I-N-G-O ….” The lighthearted but fancifully colored tune was perhaps the most hilarious encore one could imagine. I can’t help but think he was gently ribbing my calls for an encore by following up the Brahms with Bingo the Dog, but hey, how many people can say they heard Joshua Bell play Bingo the Dog? I am sure he’s well aware that he caused a room full of grown adults to leave Symphony Hall for perhaps the first time in history whistling not a serious classical work but, yes, Bingo the Dog. There was something befitting with the now grown but boyish Joshua Bell playing Bingo the Dog, as his trademark mop of hair bounced eagerly on his expression of the theme, much like one might imagine the piece’s subject might on occasion. (It just dawned on me that absolutely nothing happens in Bingo the Dog but a repetition of the fact that it was some farmer’s dog by that name.) It was a lighthearted end to a wonderful concert, and I hope he enjoyed himself as much as we most certainly did. Besides making a fan out of his encore piece, his concerts have allowed me to see the Brahms performed live now twice, with my beloved BSO. It’s unclear when I will next be able to hear the Brahms performed, so I value these experiences greatly. Future listens, live or recorded, now are equipped with a completely new appreciation and experience.