Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is not my favorite: I prefer my Romantic concert music to travel to darker places, and this piece tends to stay within the stately and lyric, like a Beethoven symphony’s second movement. But it was still a treat to see the New York Philharmonic perform the piece last night, as it featured the soloist Joshua Bell, who tore the work up as though his bow were a pair of scissors: in fact, watching him play the violin is like watching Edward Scissorhands sculpt a bush—it’s all crazy hands and mad virtuosity. He looks the part, too: with casual black clothes and flouncy dark hair, Bell comes across like a Gothy concert-hall rock star; he doesn’t play so much as he shreds. You’re worried he’s going to snap a string or something.
In such hands, the concerto wasn’t just technically wizardrous—the player for whom it was written initially described the piece as “unplayable”—but also an emotional tour-de-force. Bell is a theatrical musician, wringing expression from every line (sometimes, as my companion opined, at the expense of clarity, like Janis Joplin’s singing), even teasing out a bit of playfulness; I swear I heard the audience chuckling during some cadenzas. Bell was so well-liked that the crowd broke convention and applauded him between movements. Sometimes those unfamiliar with the mores of the concert hall will unknowingly violate this taboo, and reluctantly the audience will join in. But there was no hesitation last night: the audience at Avery Fisher just couldn’t wait to tell this man how much they adored him.
Bell repeats this program with the New York Philharmonic tonight and Friday night; Saturday night’s concert is sold-out. More info here.