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Joshua Bell with the Albany Symphony

by B.A. Nilsson on December 14, 2011

“In the big cities, the audience has 30 things to choose from that night and they’ve heard everything a million times,” says Joshua Bell. “And they’ve heard every soloist under the sun. I enjoy playing with regional orchestras because there is a big difference in the feeling you get.”

Bell will play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Albany Symphony at the Palace, Saturday. It’s a return for the renowned violinist, who was last here in 2008.

“We’re happy to have him back,” says ASO music director David Alan Miller, who will conduct the concert. Echoing Bell’s comments, he notes that it will be “much more of an event than it might be in a major music center.”

Is that difference reflected in the audience reaction? “Yes, very much,” says Bell. “Ironically, I will have just played four performances of the Tchaikovsky with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, so it will be an interesting contrast. There’s something nice about going to a place where you feel like you’re appreciated as something a little out of the ordinary, and where people come really just to enjoy music.”

He also finds this spirit extending to the orchestra itself. “I enjoy working on a piece like the Tchaikovsky. It’s a piece I’ve done a thousand times, but it’s nice to be actually working with them and trying to make it better. This is an orchestra that doesn’t play four concerts a week, so there’s something less jaded about the approach to music—they’re there to create something. They’re not just there for a job.”

From the conductor’s standpoint, is it difficult to reconcile one’s own interpretation of the work? “I had a professor at Juilliard,” Miller says, “who argued that the soloist has spent a lifetime perfecting the work, so it really should be about making that soloist feel more confident. As the professor put it, you hold him aloft with kid gloves. I have ideas of my own, but I defer as much as possible to the soloist. The last thing you want to do is mess with his interpretation.”

What the orchestra offers very much affects what Bell does, he explains. “It’s not just a matter of getting all the notes perfectly,” he says, “but there’s also the energy and excitement, especially with the Tchaikovsky, which is one of the most exciting and visceral pieces there is. So you do need the support and energy coming from the orchestra. They’ll affect me and I’ll affect them, so there should be good chemistry.”

Bell also notes that the audience response makes a difference. “On one hand, you get into your own world,” he says, “and the audience becomes a voyeur into that world. What happens on stage is not exactly like a communication between two people. It’s more like a play. You wouldn’t want the actor to turn around and wave to them—that would spoil the magic.

“For classical music, the audience has to be completely active. The brain has to be active, to the point of hanging on every note. It’s not background music. You have to process everything that’s happening, and you can feel as a performer when that connection is happening. And when it’s happening, it inspires you to an even greater degree.”

Giving the program a holiday theme is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite as interpreted in 1960 by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, who arranged nine of the movements for the Ellington ensemble. “It was reorchestrated for orchestra by a wonderful composer and arranger named Jeff Tyzik,” says Miller. “We couldn’t hope to sound like the Ellington band—that’s impossible—but what we’ll have is a transmigration of the work.”

Also on the program are the overture to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss and the L’Arlesienne Suite by Georges Bizet.

“This concert is also a birthday tribute to board member Heinrich Medicus, who turns 93,” Miller explains. “He’s a huge supporter of culture in the region, and a huge Joshua Bell fan, so he underwrote this appearance. And he also brought my attention to a composer named Bruce MacCombie. . . . So we’ll be playing MacCombie’s Chelsea Tango, which is a sweet 10-minute piece with a tango feel, a very charming work.”

Joshua Bell will perform with the ASO at 7:30 PM Saturday (Dec. 17) at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave., Albany). For tickets, call 465-4663.