Pillbox

Bell's violin rings through Heinz Hall

Heinz Hall was near full capacity on Saturday night — and no wonder: The program boasted violinist Joshua Bell, who is about as close to a rock star as it gets in the classical music world. Bell’s performance was spectacular, of course — but his was only one of several performances that made Saturday’s program especially fantastic.

Before Bell’s performance, the 2012–13 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) Composer of the Year Mason Bates came to the stage to introduce his piece, Desert Transport. It seemed odd that Bates should choose a Bell concert to debut his work — where no matter how well received the piece was, it would inevitably be overshadowed by Bell’s performance. However, by introducing it on Saturday, Bates ensured that his work was heard by the largest possible audience.

And to Bates’ credit, the composition was very good. His piece sounded unlike much of the more eccentric and purposefully dissonant contemporary music that’s already out there. Sweeping and glorious, the music resembled a movie score in terms of its scope and sound. As Bates explained, the piece was inspired by a helicopter flight over the Arizona desert. The climbing strings mirrored the rise in altitude as the helicopter took off; one could even hear the rapid pulsing of helicopter blades in the percussion. There was a definite sense of journey to the piece — a triumphant arc that rose, peaked, and then returned to ground level.

Even though this piece wasn’t necessarily the most anticipated on the program, audience members cheered wildly at its conclusion, granting Bates a well-deserved standing ovation. For those few minutes, it was gratifying to see music lovers acknowledge new talent in the composing world — even if they had primarily come to see someone else.

The cheers subsided and then rose again as Bell took the stage. After exchanging a few good-natured handshakes with members of the orchestra and giving the audience an appreciative smile, Bell lifted his violin for Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium.”

The sound was incredible. Watching Bell, it was immediately clear that he has an unusually stiff vibrato; unlike most top-notch violinists who produce a more fluid vibrato from the wrist, Bell uses his entire arm in a way that looks almost awkward at times.

However, this quirky characteristic did nothing to detract from the sound he produced. Bell played deftly and effortlessly, even producing a few series of notes that seemed impossibly fast. In these moments, Bell proved himself an energetic performer; his hair moved vigorously with the music, and he frequently bent and straightened his knees according to the tension in each phrase.

But any violinist of his caliber can play quickly. The moments that set Bell apart as a musician happened when the tempo slowed and gave him time to bring out the artistry in his playing. Bell managed to wring every ounce of sweetness from the notes he played, just toeing the line between excess and perfection. A dreamlike expression crossed his face during these slower passages.

Toward the end of the piece, PSO assistant principal cellist Adam Liu joined Bell in a lovely duet. Though Bell was clearly still the star, Liu’s cello supplemented him nicely, and Bell was not so overpowering as to detract from the delicate exchange of back-and-forth musical dialogue.

But Bell’s performance, startlingly, was not the end of the concert. After the intermission, the orchestra took the stage for a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Bell’s was a hard act to follow, but the orchestra’s performance proved to be anything but anticlimactic.

The PSO’s rendition of the Brahms was truly the best of the best. The second movement in particular showed off the orchestra’s exquisite dynamics. The orchestra worked in complete harmony; each phrase lifted and descended with a soft sigh, as if the orchestra were a single breathing body.

The order of the program was an interesting and undoubtedly intentional choice. The program could have easily ended with a bang after Bell’s performance, but instead the orchestra chose to give itself the limelight for the last third of the concert. This final performance was a nod toward the orchestra and a reminder that they made the entire evening possible — a reminder of the renown and professionalism without which bringing in soloists like Joshua Bell would not even be possible. By ending the concert with the Brahms, the PSO made the evening not a celebration of Bell or Bates, but a celebration of the orchestra itself and its important contributions to the Pittsburgh cultural scene.