Chamber music galas are usually a chance to dress fancy, eat fancy food, and visit fancy places. The music is usually an afterthought.
But you don’t engage Joshua Bell as an afterthought.
The esteemed violinist, with his equally estimable piano accompanist Alessio Bax, performed Sunday evening at Ochre Court for the annual gala of the Newport Music Festival. There was plenty of fancy throughout the evening, but thanks to Bell and Bax, plenty of music as well.
The program was “only” two major sonatas—Mozart and Grieg—along with a tender song from Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, and Sarasate’s unimaginably virtuosic “Zigeunerweisen.” All of it served as a vehicle for the brilliance and supreme musicianship that Bell brings perpetually to any concert stage.
Mozart—the B-flat sonata here—can be a challenge as a concert opener. Both musicians and audience can come unprepared for Mozart’s devilish insights, the impeccable phrasing and the sublime interactions he creates for players.
This sonata opens with long, largo melody in the unusually slow-tempoed first movement, but its centerpiece is its even slower middle movement. Bold, chromatic key changes remind close listeners that musical experimentation did not begin in the last century. With Bell singing over the top, Bax played beautiful contrapuntal accompaniment. The robust finale was playful and alert.
The C minor Grieg sonata brought drama. The opening melody—which returns much later in the finale—gets displayed up high in the violin register, then repeated down low. Grieg works it over in between, then abandons it for a gorgeous second movement romance.
This melody, equally beautiful, gets interrupted by a strumming pizzicato interlude. In the animated finale, the return to the opening idea seems like coming home.
The duo played exquisitely—despite the sweltering conditions in Ochre Court, it must be noted. Weather like this can sap the energy and destroy the intonation of string players—none of that was visible, or audible, from Bell.
The great Jascha Heifetz (“my hero,” Bell called him during his brief introduction to the piece) arranged a hugely popular song of Ponce’s, “Estrellita,” as an encore piece. It’s a tender song of anguished love, meant to calm down inflamed audiences.
Bell calmed the audience down all right, but then inflamed them again. Sarasate’s “Zigeurnerweisen” calls for all the violin tricks: spiccato, left-hand pizzicato, double stops and strange harmonics. For some, it might seem like showing off. Not for Bell—not when you make it into music, like he did.
The Newport Music Festival runs through July 22 at various locations in Newport. Tickets range from free to $75. Call (404) 849-0700 or visit www.newportmusic.org.