Joshua Bell does it all at guest appearances with New Jersey Symphony

joshua bell review


Joshua Bell performed with the New Jersey Symphony in Newark and Morristown last week.

If classical music were a sport, Joshua Bell would be a triathlete. His latest performance with New Jersey Symphony was a triathlon of sorts and featured the famed violinist in three distinct roles as concertmaster, soloist and conductor.

“Joshua Bell Leads the New Jersey Symphony” — presented Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at NJPAC in Newark and Dec. 3 at The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown — featured romantic works by German titans including Felix Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Violin Concerto in E Minor and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major.

The program blended elements of Bell’s artistic journey over a four-decade career. He is among the rare classical music artists who have crossed into the mainstream, and has performed for American Presidents and collaborated with Hollywood stars. He plays with a sense of ease and perceptiveness at the same time, and is celebrated for his pure tone, superb control and monumental finger work on the concert instrument he’s been using since 2001, the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius.


Joshua Bell conducts New Jersey Symphony.

He is a frequent guest artist with New Jersey Symphony, last appearing in June to close out the centennial season with Bruch’s violin concerto.

At the Nov. 30 concert I attended, the stage had been arranged for Bell as concertmaster in the “Midsummer” opener, which meant a piano bench in place of the concertmaster’s traditional chair and the absence of a podium. The effect was intimate, collaborative and charming, with Bell appearing more like an informal ensemblist leading a chamber orchestra. (The concertmaster role is familiar terrain for him as music director of the chamber orchestra, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, since 2011; he will lead them on a USA tour in 2024, including an NJPAC concert on March 30.)

The concert began 20 minutes late to accommodate seating of the full house. Bell came out on the stage, poised to play. He took a good look around the still-arriving crowds and made a little joke to the audience (“Nice to see people still coming … however late, though!”). Plenty of guest artists in his shoes would have plowed ahead with the show, late-comers be damned, but Bell politely excused himself back into the wings to wait it out.

Mendelssohn’s highly atmospheric piece is full of poetic imagery and vivid sketches of fairies, elves and mischievous magic spells inspired by William Shakespeare’s comedy. It perfectly captures the expressions of the teenage composer’s labile moods from lighthearted to turbulent. He was only 17 when he wrote the score.

Bell used his bow to cue the woodwinds’ four enchanting, opening chords and gave them plenty of sensitive spacing. Then he joined the strings with whisper-light tones and bright, rippling staccatos. Low strings, brass and woodwinds created the warmer earth tones of the Athenian forest but timid structural elements made one wish for sharper accents and crisper shapes.

The orchestra secured its footing for Mendelssohn’s violin warhorse, a hallmark of the Romantic era that premiered in 1845, two years before the composer’s death. Mendelssohn wrote it for his close friend and violinist, Ferdinand David, who consulted on fine tunings over the six years it took to compose.


Joshua Bell performs with New Jersey Symphony.

It has become a staple of the violin repertoire and a rite of passage for aspiring violinists, most famously as the piece that launched Itzhak Perlman to international fame in 1958 when the then-13-year-old played the joyous Allegretto finale live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Melodically and thematically, it typifies mature Mendelssohn with structural innovations. It’s built around the traditional concerto structure of three movements — a slower andante middle section framed by two upbeat allegros — but with no breaks between them. The absence of the traditional orchestral exposition in the first movement means the violinist jumps into the opening measures to introduce the main theme.

It has extremely demanding virtuoso bowings for the soloist, including the cadenza. Bell has the technical mastery needed for the virtuosic showpiece, but he played his own original version here, not the one commonly used. It’s a bit broader and nomadic, but has the right character, and sounded fresh and persuasive with a precious rubato.

The work’s success depends on a gifted soloist with a natural fluency and charisma to fill a hall. Bell brought that and more. His approach was purposeful, energetic, unsentimental and direct. His violin dazzled with meticulous passagework, breathtaking flexibility and a bright, shimmering top range. His tone was warm, resilient and robust in the slower, broader phrases of the central andante and the wistful intermezzo.

The finale’s irrepressible energy and playfulness made for a thematically satisfying transition to Beethoven’s Fourth (1807), the German composer’s sunniest and most serene chapter of his symphonic chronology between the monumental “Eroica” Third and the iconic Fifth.

Bell led the orchestra without a baton and his conducting language was without artifice or pomposity in clear, responsive gestures.

Bell’s Beethoven brought out the composer’s signature resonant style, and kept a keen balance between majesty and whimsy, like in the third movement’s playful, sweet scherzo between the woodwinds and strings. Faithful tempi gave a purposeful sense of direction, and the orchestra accompanied with tidy playing and organic unity.

The fourth movement made an exhilarating conclusion with a steady, fast tempo and perpetual, 16th-note bowings from the strings. Bell was rapt. Without a podium, he could freely move around, which he did, in a performance worthy of Beethoven’s enchantments.


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