Soloists Shine

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday March 21, 2018
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Joshua Bell led the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Davies Hall
Joshua Bell led the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Davies Hall

Two chamber ensembles with brilliant soloists doing double duty as conductors made for some agreeable listening recently in bookend concerts in San Francisco. Leading British violinist Daniel Hope brought the New Century Chamber Orchestra and Zurich Chamber Orchestra together last Friday at Herbst Theatre. American superstar Joshua Bell warmed Davies Symphony Hall the prior Sunday with the renowned Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Both virtuosos have fame in their own right, but have solidified their careers by joining with accomplished orchestras in mutually beneficial partnerships. Neither the celebrated ASMF and Joshua Bell really needed each other to carry on, nor the established NCCO and Daniel Hope, but the successful combinations of artistic excellence and show-business savvy guarantee continued audience interest and support.

Daniel Hope was appointed Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra. Photo: Tibor Bozi  

Daniel Hope's appearance with NCCO brought Zurich Chamber Orchestra to town for a one-night-only event (Zurich is a sister city to SF) in a "rush hour" program which ended with the American organization's search committee chair and founding board president Paula Gambs, Board President Mark Salkind and Executive Director Philip Wilder announcing Hope's well-deserved appointment as Music Director.

It was hard to imagine NCCO without previous leader Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (nine seasons), but Hope followed her as interim artistic leader in 2017 and quickly proved his worthiness. For those who have not seen him perform or wonder at the swiftness of the new appointment, check out some of his many exciting recordings (over 25 and counting) or catch him in clips on the internet. Like Nadja, Hope is adept at juggling concertmaster duties and conducting, as well as taking some passionate solo turns. He may be cooler onstage, but he has an equally magnetic presence.

The recent program was an evening-starter for the NCCO's "Soiree Suisse Gala," which also honored the concert's side-by-side participants. It proved a great way to get an early start on the weekend for audience members who did not go on to the Green Room afterwards.

Musical selections were suitably lighthearted and fairly conservative. The NCCO opened with Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. Zurich Chamber Orchestra followed with Mozart's sunny Divertimento in F Major, and Hope joined as soloist for the fiery "Summer III" movement from Max Richter's recomposed version of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." Both orchestras banded together for a sumptuous reading of Edvard Grieg's charming "From Holberg's Time: Suite in the Old Style," Op. 40.

After the big announcement of Daniel Hope's new appointment, playing the achingly melancholy Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony for an encore seemed a bit strange, but the performance was breathtaking, and the audience responded with a moment of silent appreciation followed by a strong standing ovation.

Joshua Bell, named successor to ASMF in 2011 after the passing of legendary founder Sir Neville Marriner, joined his internationally acclaimed band to appear as part of the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series on a Sunday evening at DSH. The program was designed to show Bell's recognized strength as a soloist in a nicely realized performance of Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto, and to highlight his skills as a conductor (from the concertmaster's chair) with a buoyant and thoroughly satisfying Beethoven Sixth, "Pastoral."

The only offbeat moments on the bill were supplied by a pleasant if unmemorable Overture for Violin and Orchestra (2017) by Bell's friend, American composer Edgar Meyer, and the violinist's employment of his own cadenzas in the Mozart Concerto. There was nothing superficial or overly careful about the performances, though I could have used a little more abandon in Beethoven's trip to the country. We always enjoy any chance of hearing Beethoven or Mozart.

As proof of the ongoing success of the partnership between Bell and the Brits, or the immortality of great music, the concert proved a predictably heartwarming success.