Despite being down a principal 2nd violinist, a principal percussionist, and a principal trombonist, the ASO began its season with an incredibly well performed concert of Tchaikovsky’s music last night. The evening began with Suite no. 1 from the Nutcracker. This was the first time that I can recall hearing any of the music from the ballet live. It was refreshing not to hear it tied to anything Christmassy and I found that it was enjoyable and had some pretty interesting things in it that I’ve never really noticed before on the radio. There was nothing really exciting about the performance, though Christina Smith’s gorgeous and masterful flute playing really stood out for me in the Dance of the Reed Flutes.
Next was the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy. This was beyond amazing. Spano has, on occasion, managed to blow my mind with his interpretations of some of the Russian romantics and this was one of those times. He brought out every bit of emotion from it without coming across as schmaltzy, completely gripping my attention and drawing me in until I lost myself in the music. I really could have left afterward and been satisfied with the evening.
Fortunately, though, I didn’t leave before Joshua Bell joined the orchestra to play Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major. The last time that I saw Bell play was in 2011, when he played the same piece with the ASO also under Spano’s baton. That was an amazing performance and it was probably the first time that I truly enjoyed hearing the piece but I think that I enjoyed last night’s performance even more. Bell seemed to be playing much more to and with the orchestra, being fully engaged with the music as a whole rather than just his part in it. It almost seemed like he would have liked to have jumped in and conducted when his bow wasn’t set to the strings of his violin, not for finding any fault in Spano’s excellent conducting but, rather, so as to be a part of the entire piece rather than just the soloist’s parts.
In response to the well deserved applause that the performance elicited from the audience, Bell and the orchestra gave an encore together. They played the theme from Ladies in Lavender by Nigel Hess, which is a beautiful and tender piece that comes from the soundtrack to a really great movie with Maggie White and Judi Dench, who are amazing together (check out Tea with Mussolini if you need further proof). Anyway, Bell was the soloist on the original soundtrack and he and the orchestra gave a great performance. I think that it was, however, a little unfair to put it next to the Tchaikovsky: the Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasy was so much more emotionally deep and expressive and the violin concerto in D major is so much more virtuosic. Although I doubt that anyone didn’t enjoy it, I suspect that I wasn’t the only one who left with Tchaikovsky in my head rather than Hess.
All in all, this was an excellent way to begin a season. There are a lot of really great concerts programmed and, with the orchestra expanding its numbers and, hopefully, finding the right people to fill the principal chairs, I think that there is a lot to look forward to over the next several months.