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There are few ensembles as instantly recognizable in the Classical music realm as Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and few living solo musicians as famous as Joshua Bell. A quick Google search will reveal the extensive recording and performing output of both. With these two powerhouses working together – Bell has been the orchestra's music director since 2011 – each performance is a coveted event. As part of the ASMF's East Coast tour and Carolina Performing Arts concert season, UNC Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall hosted the revered ensemble in a sold-out concert. The only other director in ASMF's history besides founder Sir Neville Marriner, Bell returns the orchestra to its conductorless roots, performing simultaneously as concertmaster and conductor, or, in the case of Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto, both soloist and conductor. The ensemble's smaller, chamber orchestra size lends itself to unrivaled clarity and fresh exposure of lesser-heard melodic lines even in the most well-known of music.
Such was the case for ASMF's Chapel Hill performance. The program opened with a multi-faceted performance of Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream (Op. 21), where the strings' dynamic control in brilliant, rapid passages was so mesmerizing, it was akin to the sensation of viewing the scene from behind a screen and then taking it away suddenly. Bell played both roles of conductor and concertmaster, especially during the woodwind and brass cadences that bookend the piece. When not conducting explicitly with his bow, Bell personified the orchestra's expression with his whole body, revealing a beautifully phrased, lyrical melody.
The program listing for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 (K. 218) stated "original cadenzas by Joshua Bell," which no doubt became a highlight of the concert for many. This concerto, one of Mozart's earlier works, has all the classic attributes of Mozart's music: sudden, plateaued dynamics, loyalty to major tonality, and effervescence. Bell's ornamentation of Mozart's melody was liquid and exactly mirrored the orchestra's articulations. In the first movement, the tonally satisfying melody tripped along until the first cadenza: a stylistically consistent journey to impossibly lofty pitches, with a touch of Bell's signature humor. The concerto's third movement, a joyful rondeau with swiftly alternating articulation, ended with a cadenza featuring just the right amount of unpredictability and a delicate final cadence.
As often as Beethoven's 6th Symphony ("Pastorale") is performed, ASMF's interpretation sounds fresh and brand new. Experiencing this programmatic work's story arc through the lens of such poised musicians was memorable; the chamber orchestra texture allowed each section of musicians to shine in new and unexpected ways. Every instrument could be clearly heard within the shifting balance of some of Beethoven's most memorable themes. Perhaps the most unique aspect of all was the lack of a typical "conductor" for such an intricate and lengthy work, with Bell leading from the concertmaster chair. The symphony's rapturous and sparkling finale lent itself well to the closure of this concert, which proved to be a rare and memorable event.