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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 03
Bell and Morlot work magic
Arts & Entertainment
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Bell and Morlot work magic

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Joshua Bell at Seattle Symphony
January 10
Benaroya Hall


I'm assuming that I'm not the only person guilty on occasion of expecting less depth from a person merely because he or she possesses physical beauty. We won't ponder here just why a person's good looks might cause us to doubt their talents, but let me state here and now that Joshua Bell's still boyish attractiveness is in no way a sign of musical deficiency. In neither technical wonders nor musical depth can he be found wanting. Indeed, his performance last Tuesday with the Seattle Symphony was one to leave the listener grateful for the privilege of witnessing such a dazzling talent so perfectly applied to utterly gorgeous music.

Not since Maxim Vengerov brought his Stradivarius to Benaroya in 2002 have I heard a violinist make this hall ring so resoundingly. Bell's sound was even more beautiful than Vengerov's. When applied to the romanticism of Bruch's 'Violin Concerto No. 1,' it became transcendent, lifting every phrase into an unearthly realm of beauty that left one breathless. The second movement especially soared to its emotional climax to overwhelming effect. Bell and conductor Ludovic Morlot seemed utterly in accord, and the orchestra supported Bell perfectly without ever threatening to swamp his sound. When the score let the band fly away on their own, the orchestral climax was truly exciting and satisfying.

At the concerto's end, the nearly sold-out audience went crazy. After five solo bows, Bell gave an encore that both respected the audience in its harmonic challenges and at the same time raised the ante in technical bravura: Ysaye's unaccompanied 'Sonata No. 3.' What noise his spectacular playing received after that!

It's a joy to have Morlot back in town! This evening's program showed yet another side of his exceptional talents, revealing a romantic heart and warmth that had been only hinted at previously. The Bruch is, of course, romanticism at its best. But the two von Weber overtures that opened each half of the program were, despite a little rough playing in the woodwinds and horns, so winning that I wanted more. The 'Overture to Oberon' especially sounded so like early Wagner and was so passionately Germanic that I wanted Morlot to insert the 'Overture to Rienzi' after the Oberon to carry the mood further. The work that began the evening was von Weber's 'Overture to Der Freisch├╝tz.' It too conveyed no little poetry and Germanic warmth.

Part of the joy that 'Ludo' (the affectionate nickname the players give him) brings to these concerts is the clear evidence in smiles and behavior that the Orchestra loves playing for their new music director. Not since 'Sasha' Rostropovich last bounded up onto the podium at an SSO concert have I seen the players have so much fun as in the concerts under 'Ludo.' Even though it was evident that the rehearsal time for this evening's program was a little short, the playing was always nuanced and beautifully phrased. The occasional goofs were minor and vastly overshadowed by the joyous music-making. (The Bruch was the exception: no goofs and perfection throughout.)

In a luncheon address before the current season began, Morlot responded to a question with a remark that he felt Mozart was the most challenging composer to conduct. While the special challenges that Mozart presents are readily apparent to any musician worth his salt, this evening's performance of Mozart's 'Symphony No. 25 in G minor' showed clearly that Morlot has mastered them. The overall shape and individual nuances were a model of classical poise and articulation. Tempi were brisk, and buoyant energy propelled the work without ever feeling rushed or nervous. The general orchestral sound was a wonder in how the various sections were heard with clear separation from the others without ever losing cohesiveness. One could actually enjoy the special timbre of the violas, for instance. The individual touches - little accents here, dynamic shadings there - made the playing 'speak' volumes, instead of merely sounding pretty. The details, in fact, were more like that of a chamber group than a symphony orchestra. I can't think of higher praise.

I keep thinking of a phrase from a review in The Stranger: 'Morlot has banished boredom from Seattle Symphony concerts.' This evening was proof of that!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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