By conducting the talented Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) chamber orchestra from the concertmaster’s first-violin seat, or, alternately, in front of the musicians as both maestro and soloist, Joshua Bell presented a compelling ideal of democratic leadership — the participant conductor, rather than the silent maestro. Watching Bell swivel from facing the orchestra and leading with gestures to looking out at the audience and lifting his bow to play another of the challenging cadenzas in the Beethoven violin concerto, it was hard to imagine who else would be so comfortable with executing such a feat of inner balance. For Bell, it did not come off as particularly difficult; in the manner of Fred Astaire, he made the intricate dance of his performance look easy.
The concert began with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and it was clear from the outset that this was no ordinary orchestra. Despite its relatively diminutive size, the ASMF packs considerable punch, a quality that Bell is good at emphasizing. The concerto that followed was exquisitely detailed, delicate, and crystal-clear, but perhaps a shade too restrained for real drama. After the intermission, though, all was forgiven, as one could hardly ask for a more precise or more passionate reading of the great Beethoven Symphony No. 7. The second movement allegretto was warm and lush, while the finale was a gloriously kinetic celebration. An audience member next to me leapt to her feet at the end of it and emitted an inadvertent shriek of delight. Now that’s what I call a good reception.