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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fiddle and Drums

From the Vault Dept.: I missed Joshua Bell’s appearance last week with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, but it put me in mind of an appearance he made there almost exactly ten years earlier . . .


Joshua Bell
IT'S NO SUBTLE TRANSITION from Mozart to MacMillan, especially with the percussion forces required by the latter’s Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a work written for Evelyn Glennie and premiered ten years ago at a London Proms concert. She has performed the piece over a hundred times since, but it’s not something through which you can cruise-control: she puts her amazing dexterity to good use as she moves from vibes to woodblocks, from marimba to trap set, all arrayed across the front of the stage, flanking the podium.

Where Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture is tuneful, familiar set piece to show off string section coordination (and show it off it did, admirably), Veni, Veni Emmanuel plunges us into a half-hour of textural contrasts fired off by a thick, frantic fanfare through which the vibes peal an anticipation of the melodic elements – drawn from the Gregorian chant that gives this work its name.

Glennie swooped over to stage right, to the untuned instruments, as the strings picked up the theme, As SPAC composer-in-residence MacMillan explained in a brief intro, the work isolates a pair of two-note motifs into a heartbeat rhythm that informs much of the piece in a variety of textures, reinforced by the percussion. At the drum array, Glennie propelled the piece with a rock beat; at the marimba, she layered it with haunting tones.

The finish was as moving as any concert experience can be, with a dramatic light-change signaling her journey to the chimes on an upstage riser, softly pealing an Easter anthem as the orchestra struck finger-cymbals and the heavens echoed, quite by chance, with the soft booms of a distant fireworks display.

Theatrically – and what’s any devotional ritual but a theatrical piece? – the piece is eye-arresting. The percussion battery, usually hidden upstage behind the brass, is revealed as rarely before, and Glennie’s vigor is also a sight to behold – especially when she’s attired, as she was at SPAC, in silver bell-bottoms and décolleté top, a vintage Carnaby Street look carried over into MacMillan’s natty three-button suit.

For all-around sex appeal, however, Joshua Bell had the edge, easing his good-looking self into basic black and pouring his soul into the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He has re-cadenza’d the piece with a more virtuosic moment to complete a fiery interpretation that still has enough Romanticism to satisfy the lush demands of the slow movement.

Evelyn Glennie
His tone rippled with suitable joy throughout the work, but the tone of the violin itself was muddied by mediocre sound reinforcement inside the amphitheater, where such amplification probably isn’t even needed.

Conductor Charles Dutoit accompanied both soloists admirably, and went on to show what he can do with a work that makes really lush demands: Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2. Where Mahler takes at least twenty minutes to wake up a forest, Ravel gets the birds a-twitter in less than two, and it’s a noisy woodland, at that, making heavy demands on the winds in terms both of tone and timing. A gorgeous flute solo highlighted the “Pantomime” section, and the hurry-up beat of the “General Dance” called forth a big orchestral sound reminding us that, in spirit at least, Ravel deserves credit as a MacMillan progenitor.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor)
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Friday, Aug. 16, 2002
With Evelyn Glennie (percussion) and Joshua Bell (violin)

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture
MacMillan: Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, Aug. 23, 2002.

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