Never one to back away from a challenge, Joshua Bell brought the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra to the Granada on Tuesday with a monumental program that included one of the most difficult concertos in the violin repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 in D Major, TH 59. It’s clear now what Bell intends to do with this group, and it is to redefine what is considered possible for an ensemble performing orchestral works without the benefit of a non-playing conductor. Bell conducts the Academy either from a chair at the head of the violin section, or, in the case of the two concertos on the program, with body language from a position standing front and center.
Despite his star power and the prominence of his role in this organization, no one would accuse Bell of straining for effect. If anything, he plays more softly and subtly than most of his peers in the top tier of concert violinists. This was particularly noticeable on the Tchaikovsky, which he turned into something very intimate, drawing the capacity crowd at the Granada into a tight circle around his deft soloing.
The opening piece, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Op. 25, is the kind of thing that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has specialized in since the days of Bell’s predecessor, Sir Neville Marriner. In Bell’s hands, it was a sparkling delight, full of breathtaking tympani rolls and soaring flutes. The Tchaikovsky followed, taken at a brisk pace despite the exposed position of the soloist as conductor. Bell succeeded in making this well-known piece completely his own. After the intermission, the group played a single movement, the second, from Robert Schumann’s violin concerto as adapted by Benjamin Britten. The finale was an express-train version of Beethoven’s jauntily enigmatic Symphony No. 8. Santa Barbara is very fortunate to be a regular stop on the world tours of this artist and this orchestra.