Joshua Bell Owns the Show – Ruthie Snoke

With a change in the weather and Christmas decorations lighting downtown up, Heinz Hall really glimmered on Saturday night. I think it was the biggest crowd I’ve seen yet—no doubt everyone was excited about the violinist Joshua Bell and the talent and skill he brought to the orchestra. I know I was—and after taking the SAT IIs that morning, I was ready to hear some enticing music.


The program was somewhat eclectic, for a change. Usually there is a prevalent theme to the pieces picked, but on Saturday the four pieces seemed to be as polar as possible. The first piece, a serious but colorful Beethoven, jarred with the remarkably dispirited ‘Feast During A Plague’. The incredible Brahms piece, which Mr. Bell performed, was also a bit ill fitting with the up beat, clownish ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’. Each piece was well executed, yet all together they made for a somewhat helter-skelter symphony.


Both ‘Coriolan’ and ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’ were fun pieces. In ‘Coriolan’ I thought the music portrayed the story quite well. Though I wasn’t all that familiar with the story before I read it in the program (I think I studied him a few years ago…) I could follow the emotions and responses of the characters. The Strauss piece was fun in its humor and good nature.


I really don’t know what to say about Sofia Gubaidulina’s ‘Feast During A Plague’, because to tell the truth I really disliked it. I’m sure Ms. Gubaidulina had a wonderful vision, and to tell the truth I saw glimpses of that vision in snatches of the song, but it was lost in the weight of the piece. To put it bluntly, I found her work far too dissonant, and though it may have been ‘expressive dissonance,’ the unnecessary length of the piece and what seemed like the same phrases over and over squelched the expression. Dissonance can be a wonderful tool in a composer’s hand, but it only goes so far—and 25 minutes is too far. And as far as the pre-recorded material went, I could make no sense of it. Naturally I understood what it was supposed to mean, but other than making a jarring piece even more jarring, it did nothing. Ms. Gubaidulina was trying to tell us that we need to do something about this terrible world we live in, and I completely agree, but I think we should find another way to convey that message.

The Brahms piece, however, was incredible. I can find no words to describe Mr. Bell’s playing, but he took my breath away. His skill was highlighted by the beauty and intricacy of the music itself (or was it the other way around?); I found myself wondering if the PSO would be able to keep up with the energetic Joshua Bell. The musicians, however, did in fact keep up and performed almost as energetically as Mr. Bell. By the third curtain call Mr. Bell looked a little amused, but the fact remains that he, and the entire orchestra, deserved it.


All in all it was a fun night, and hearing Mr. Bell live made me hunger for more of his work (and also gave me a desire to see ‘The Red Violin’.) I don’t know if I can wait a whole year to see him again…

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