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Fun and Fireworks

by B.A. Nilsson on December 21, 2011

Albany Symphony Orchestra with Joshua Bell, violinist
Palace Theatre, Dec. 17

Violinist Joshua Bell was the big draw at Saturday’s concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Simply put, he turned in an astonishing performance. Conductor David Alan Miller and the orchestra handed him a well-chosen lead-up to that performance, a program with just enough holiday-esque fare to be able to warrant a “Christmas concert” label.

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus overture kicked things off with a froth of tunes so familiar that it must course through our DNA. Thanks to the piece’s long association with New Year’s Eve, you could almost hear the champagne corks letting loose. But one of the most important jobs of the opening work is to give us confidence in the players and conductor, allowing us to relax through the rest of the show. Miller and company took off like seasoned acrobats, technical problems nonexistent, absolutely in control and with plenty of energy to spare.

One reason to choose music from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suites, Miller explained, is that its final movement quotes an old French Christmas carol. Fair enough. Three selections worked into a nice suite of their own: “Carillon,” with its stately impression of steeple bells; an easygoing adagietto and the lively “Farandole,” which has the tunes you’d recognize. And it was a good workout for the players, particularly those in the percussion section.

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is about as Christmas-y as they come—too familiar, in my opinion, so in my house we have the Spike Jones and Duke Ellington versions at hand. Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn turned it into a jazz suite for a 1960 recording, and composer Jeff Tyzik—an Ellington specialist—orchestrated five of the movements, three of which were featured in the concert.

Even better, some key symphony players were showcased. Tyzik himself is a trumpeter, and turned what was originally played by Ray Nance into idiomatic parts at which ASO principal Eric Berlin excelled; also featured were Grace Shryock on sax, Susan Martula on clarinet, and, at a full set of traps, drummer Mark Foster.

Tchaikovsky balanced Tchaikovsky, of course, but there was another characteristic of the program’s first half that made it appealing: accessibility. You and I seek out classical music because we want to be challenged by the path of tension resolution each composer chooses in essaying long-form works.

And then we want a break. The first half was all about melody, transformed in simple but striking ways—the bombast of “L’Arlesienne,” the syncopations of the jazzy “Nutcracker.” As any pop-music enthusiast will explain, when wrenched away from Pandora long enough: there’s comfort in familiar tunes. Now give me back my earbuds.

The second half opened, sneakily, with Chelsea Tango, a 1991 work by American composer Bruce MacCombie. MacCombie’s brief piece is a pleasant excursion through a minimalist-tinged melodic sequence over a rhythm with the characteristic extra beat. A middle section got a lively boom-chick going—shades of Danny Elfman!—before settling back into the easy tango and then wrapping up in a lively, unexpectedly lengthy finish.

Joshua Bell has the look of a student about to plead for a higher grade, but when he swings his fiddle up under his chin and begins to play, something entirely different emerges. Something old worldly, in tune with the previous century’s classic violinists.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has the inventiveness and development that the shorter works lacked, most of it placed in service of the violin, which gets to revel in virtuosity that not only sounds good but looks terrific, especially if you’re as kinetic a player as Bell.

He may bend over backwards to serve the composer’s intent, but he certainly bends over forwards to play it, emphasizing big transitions with a well-placed foot-stomp. Not a note was out of place as he romped through the work, and the connection between him and the orchestra, carefully tended by a hyper-attentive Miller, was phenomenal.

Nobody indulges the maudlin quite so shamelessly as Tchaikovsky, but the slow movement for this work is quiet, lovely and meditative and rewards the commitment we got from Bell and the orchestra. And it’s too-easily forgotten once it gives way to the subsequent allegro vivacissimo, which translates as “let all hell break loose.”

There’s a tightrope-walk quality here. Will Bell really navigate this franticness without a slip? He must be taking risks—it sounds electric enough. But he always landed where he’s meant to land.

And the effect wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without high-spirited, virtuoso orchestral support. Of course it finished to an ovation. And this one came from the heart.