A “big finish” in music doesn’t typically bear a feathery soft imprint. Joshua Bell proves it can be done.
Capping an Omaha Symphony program featuring Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky — who, “The Nutcracker” aside, could match his Russian composing peers in majesty and bombast — Bell conquered the Romantic master’s Violin Concerto on Friday night with shockingly mellow cadenzas that registered quietly but powerfully at the edge of aural perception.
Bell’s reputation clearly preceded him to Omaha, as evidenced by a packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Bell and the symphony, led this weekend by Music Director Thomas Wilkins, will repeat the Masterworks program at 8 p.m. today. Ticket prices range from $25 to $75.
Three decades after his professional debut at age 14, Bell’s talents have been featured in Grammy-winning recordings, movie soundtracks and many worldwide tours. His reputation as a “poet of the violin” was secured long before his 2004 acquisition of the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius — lost for nearly half a century after its 1936 theft from Carnegie Hall — on which he currently performs.
But with such a precious, well-aged instrument in his hands, Bell was able to thoroughly capitalize on the acoustic capabilities of the Holland’s main Kiewit Concert Hall. His dynamic level throughout the Violin Concerto’s three movements rarely seemed to reach even medium-loud. But on several occasions in the last movement, Bell played notes that were quite high, very soft and yet perfectly discernible.
The closing measures of the concerto, written in 1878, might have been even more impressive. As Wilkins led the symphony through a full-throated, brassy, percussive coda, Bell, working equally fervently, caused his cadenzas to linger just below the pitches and dynamics of the ensemble. The audience, stunned at Bell’s pinpoint control, clapped and cheered for several minutes as the soloist, Wilkins and the symphony took repeated bows.
By design, the weekend’s Tchaikovsky program features works not nearly as famous as “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” the “1812 Overture” and the like. Wilkins and the symphony opened with the First Symphony in G minor, which Tchaikovsky began writing at age 26 but needed two years and significant rewrites to complete in a form that satisfied musical critics.
Subtitled “Winter Daydreams,” the work was meant to evoke various moods of Russia’s most iconic season without completely fitting the genre of “program music.” Tonight’s older listeners might be put in mind of the 1960s classic film “Dr. Zhivago,” set in revolutionary Russia and featuring spectacular winter scenes, as the orchestra presents the First Symphony’s four movements.
A significantly poignant moment may be heard as principal oboeist Alexandra Rock opens the slow second movement with a theme hinting at lost but lingering love. The symphony lilts through an orchestral waltz in the third movement that conjures up images of dukes, duchesses, czars and czarinas.
Preceding Bell’s concerto is Tchaikovsky’s Festival Coronation March, written in 1883 to mark the ascension of Czar Alexander III and featuring all the brass, percussion, majesty and pomp one expects from the Russian masters of the late 1800s.