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ISO and Joshua Bell end season 

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click to enlarge Hoosier violinist Joshua Bell - MARC HOM
  • Hoosier violinist Joshua Bell
  • Marc Hom

Joshua Bell attracts them like flies to a picnic. Our world famous 46-year-old Hoosier violinist, at the top of his game, pulls in big audiences wherever in the world he appears. His attraction here, within 50 miles of his native Bloomington, was large enough this season for the ISO to add a Thursday evening concert. It turned out that Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings were all near sell-outs. Then there was the 11 a.m. Thursday Coffee Concert, enabling our distinguished soloist to join with ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański twice in one day. I attended Thursday evening.

Of course the repertoire we heard added to the attraction, lending a most festive weekend to close a season which by now seems far removed from the orchestra's nadir in early 2012-2013 of a contract related lockout. Bell, to my recollection, had never locally played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, before this appearance. The Finnish composer's only concerto has by now joined the solid mainstream of genre warhorses. Composed in 1904, it seems almost a distilled compilation of his three symphonies which came before it and the four that followed, as well as lifting a rhythmic ostinato (repeating bass figure) in its third movement from his En Saga, an early tone poem.

Throughout the concerto Bell delivered a dominantly rich violin sound, never overshadowed by the orchestra and handling all of Sibelius's most difficult figurations with seeming effortlessness. His vibrato, usually on the thin side, varied from almost white (an unvarying pitch) to full in some of his held notes in the second movement. But his tone has never strayed into wobbliness, as so many fiddlers visiting the ISO's haunts do as a matter of course. Urbański, following the score (as all conductors do with a soloist present), kept his players in tow with the violin, they shouting out on their own when Bell had a rest, to wipe his brow. The audience not only stood but loudly cheered, clamoring for an encore. But Bell had sailed through one of the genre's most challenging works; he was ready to rest.

As always, Urbański didn't need a score for Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 ("From the New World"). The Bohemian composer's last and most famous symphony was written in New York City in 1893 as part of the composer's four-year American visit (as was his 1895 Cello Concerto). Dvořák incorporated his own tunes, resembling but not duplicating those from Native and African-American sources, most notably the familiar Largo theme, later set to words with the title "Goin' Home." Perhaps inadvertently, Dvořák's C-major/E-minor first-movement thematic transition is an expansion, in key and orchestral color, of a few measures leading to the recap of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony's second movement. The same for Dvořák's "Goin' Home" theme anticipated in key (D-flat) and color from earlier in that Schubert movement--written 71 years earlier.

English horn player Roger Roe did a splendid job with the "Goin' Home" melody, and he was well supported by the other, softly-played orchestral choirs. The entire Largo movement stirred from start to finish. However, the first and third movements, taken at a brisk, "exciting" tempo, lacked a bit more in orchestral precision and crispness than the ISO is capable of, with some late entrances creating a ragged effect here and there. In the final movement Urbański seemed to have collected his forces into a more coherent presentation.

The program began with the opening Sextet (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos) from Richard Strauss's final opera Capriccio--a chamber work with no conductor required. It was a quick introductory to all that followed . . . June 5-7; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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