Los Angeles Music Review: JOSHUA BELL AND FRIENDS (LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl)

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by Tony Frankel on July 9, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Violinist Joshua Bell has been known to hold old-fashion salon-type concerts in a performance space on the second floor of his renovated apartment in New York City. It had long been his desire to invite different kinds of artists and various friends and have an eclectic mix of people playing in his home for guests—often for charity. Last night, Bell turned the Hollywood Bowl into his living room (but not for charity), creating a musical olio with the participation of some fine-looking friends and Bramwell Tovey leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


The mélange of merrymaking wasn’t very adventurous, and more like a Pops concert, really. With a few exceptions, “exciting” is not the word that springs to mind; it was pleasant. But is that what patrons want from Joshua Bell? Last March, Bell’s appearance with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields at the Valley Performing Arts Center had ticket seekers turned away (Bell is only the second person to hold the title of Music Director in that orchestra’s history). Had something along the lines of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major been on the program for LA Phil’s opening of its summer concert season, would the attendance have been as insubstantial? (7,720 tickets sold with a seating capacity of nearly 18,000.)


We certainly got more than a taste of the 46-year-old violinist’s expertise: With his usual mixture of a massive but supple sound and complete technical meticulousness, Bell nailed the gypsy-flavored cadenza which began Ravel’s 10-minute Tzigane (referenced by the raconteur Tovey as “Fun flavors of a virtuosic nature”). Bell retained his trademark boyishness and energy, and he was as plucky in spirit as he was on the fingerboard. Tovey never allowed his players to compete with the soloist, and the new sound system at the Bowl is startling in its clarity and balance. Here is Bell performing the version for piano and violin in 2006.


As he did on his 2009 CD, At Home With Friends, Bell showed off a wide range of styles, from classical to folk to bluegrass as well as dipping into Pop and Broadway. Bell joined Las Vegas favorite, singer, songwriter, and showman Frankie Moreno, who recently performed his 500th show at the Stratosphere. The duo revisited a cut from At Home With Friends—a fantasy they created based on The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” an apt selection given that this is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles at the Bowl. Moreno certainly showcased his magnetism, but this rendition hardly showed off his pianistic and vocal capabilities. I wondered why they didn’t perform something which elucidated the pyrotechnics of which they are capable (was it the tie-in to the CD which Bell signed for fans after the concert?). Here are the boys performing their variation in 2013:

Bell told us that he bonded with violinist Philippe Quint when they both lost the Grammy award. Here they played together for the first time, offering up Navarro’s Sarasate for two violins and orchestra (1889). After a passionate introduction, the violins presented a distinctly Spanish theme. Often the two very difficult violin parts played in harmony; sometimes one took up the theme with the other providing embellishments. Melodic lines intermingled as the piece became increasingly virtuosic, and although the work isn’t that compelling, it closed with a dazzling display of bowmanship. Here is a “little clip” of the duo at the Bowl from Quint’s Facebook page.


While somewhat strained, pitchy, and out of practice, mega-star Glenn Close looks amazing at 67, and this was also her first performance with Bell. She commanded the stage with power, presence, and diction when she reprised her star turn as Norma Desmond singing “With One Look” from Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard (see the clip below). Less successful was Brian Byrne’s ballad “Lay Your Head Down” from the 2011 film Albert Nobbs starring Close herself (to my knowledge, Close also penned the lyrics but is uncredited in the program). This beautiful, reflective lullaby found Close’s quiet notes stuck between breathiness and a lack of control.

Bell’s contributions were sandwiched between two Stravinsky compositions: Fireworks (1908) is a short, dazzling pièce de résistance for orchestra which, while sounding somewhat like a sketchpad of ideas for his later works, is remarkable for its combination of chromatic color and diatonic themes. Tovey highlighted the playful, urgent, and searching qualities of this orchestral fantasy. The masterful instrumental effects in Fireworks sound like a harbinger of the second piece, the far more popular Firebird Suite (1919). Tovey’s laidback version could have used more, well, fire, but the breathtaking orchestrations gave principals such as oboist Ariana Ghez a chance to shine.


My least favorite orchestral piece was Waxman’s Suite from Sunset Boulevard; it was played for all its noirish worth, especially by First Associate Concertmaster Nathan Cole, but the score lacked the flair and resonance necessary to fill the Bowl. I prefer Bell on the classics, but I adored Nigel Hess’s heartbreaking and wistful theme from the 2004 English film, Ladies in Lavender, simply because the exquisite melody melted away the day’s troubles. Here is Bell from the original soundtrack recording:

The evening’s true fireworks came with Time for Three, “the world’s first classically trained garage band.” Performing Edgar Meyer’s “Death by Triple Fiddle,” the trio of Zach De Pue (violin), Nick Kendall (violin), and Ranaan Meyer (double bass) joined Bell for this burst of a country-flavored scorching spectacular. And you can’t fool an audience—this is the only selection which caused the viewers to go wild.

TIME FOR THREE-Zach De Pue (violin), Nick Kendall (violin), and Ranaan Meyer (double bass)

photos courtesy of LA Phil

Joshua Bell and Friends
Los Angeles Philharmonic
The Hollywood Bowl
played on July 8, 2014
for future events, visit LA Phil at the Bowl

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