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CONCERT REVIEW

Bell Plays With Nordic Ensemble

Violinist Joshua Bell Replaces Mutter in Celebrity Series Performance

By Andrew Wong

Staff writer

FleetBoston Celebrity Series: Joshua Bell

Symphony Hall

November 11, 2001

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has risen from a young prodigy to a successful, mature performer in the past decade, astounding the world with her original tone and thought-provoking interpretations. Unfortunately, the beginning of her North American tour with the Trondheim Soloists in performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was cancelled abruptly after a New York concert. The scheduled tour resumed, however, with a gracious save by violinist Joshua Bell. On November 11, Bell and the Trondheim Soloists performed a slightly altered program.

The Trondheim Soloists projected an aura of wonder as they took the stage. Violinist and artistic director Bjarne Fiskum commanded the sixteen-member battalion, down to the last inch of bow, in a truly breathtaking display of ensemble playing. They began the concert with Edvard Grieg’s Zwei nordische Weisen. This is only fitting, as Trondheim has recorded every piece for strings written by Grieg, including an arrangement of the String Quartet No. 1 for a chamber orchestra. Fiskum electrified the hall not with beautiful, singing solos (they were on the dry side), but with his authority on the stage. The dynamic range of the ensemble was staggering, as exemplified in the following piece, BjØrklund’s Sarek.

Also a Norwegian composer, Terje BjØrklund’s music focuses on the subtle textures developed by different harmonies, a consequence of his earlier occupation as a jazz pianist. Trondheim delivered this piece extraordinarily well, with needle-sharp articulation along with a very pleasant depth of color.

The final piece played by the ensemble was Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa. The Polish composer is mostly known for his film music, including the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This heavily rhythmic piece highlighted the ensemble’s ability to swiftly jump out of the singing lines of Grieg and into bawling highland festivities. At times, the solo cellist did seem overwhelmed by the rest of the string section, but partially ameliorated this deficiency with consistent playing. With ferocious and unrelenting speed, they finished off the piece with a triumphant shout.

As the members of Trondheim sat respectfully, a disheveled Joshua Bell strolled on to stage, looking up to the balcony with almost eerie familiarity. Sporting his famed “Gibson” Strad of 1713, Bell gave a precise and smooth performance of EugÈne Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 Ballade. From the grandiose opening to the most complex chordal passages, his supple bow arm and silky tone made this daunting solo sonata seem easy.

The second half of the program, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, was supposed to be a showcase of the earlier collaboration between Mutter and Trondheim that culminated in the their 1999 album (including Tartini’s Devil’s Trill) and a short video by Deutsche Grammophon. If one listened to the album beforehand, Joshua Bell’s performance would appear to lack the originality and freshness engendered by Mutter’s recording.

Overall, Bell delivered a satisfactory reading of the piece, although at times the odd combination between the American virtuoso and a Nordic string ensemble was blatantly apparent. Bell twisted and turned to direct his fellow musicians, at times almost thrusting his body into the cello section. His stage manner amplified his climactic solos, but also drew attention away from finer details of his playing and obscured his connection with the ensemble.

Nevertheless, the crowd loved the performance, and rose to their feet in applause. Carrying the momentum of a thrilling performance on his shoulder, Bell performed an accelerated version of the final movement from “Summer.”

Overall, the concert deemed itself worthy of praise, even though the original program, especially in the second half, seemed to be cheated of its freshness. Bell will finish the rest of the North American tour in place of Mutter, no doubt with great success, but Mutter’s signature warmth will be greatly missed in those concerts.