DAVENPORT – They say “great minds think alike.” Quad City Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Mark Russell Smith penned the same thoughts I had before Thursday night's special gala concert featuring superstar violinist Joshua Bell.
“Beethoven, Bruch, Bell – not the usual three Bs, but a recipe for an artistic and emotional experience that will not soon be forgotten,” he wrote for the program. Exactly. (If you don't know, the beloved three classical composer Bs are Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.).
And true to the great expectations and the electricity among the appreciative Adler Theatre crowd, the concert conjured a number of other Bs — namely, breathtakingly beautiful, booming and boisterous.
Two more Bs? Brian Baxter — the new, young executive director of the orchestra, who was thrilled to welcome us for the festive occasion, capping the QCSO's picture-perfect “Postcards” of a Masterworks season.
Mr. Baxter wrote in Thursday's program: “It is truly a testament to our Quad Cities community and the storied 103-year history of our orchestra” that Mr. Bell is featured here, a debut for the now 50-year-old virtuoso, who performed on his 305-year-old Stradivarius.
We were lucky to get Mr. Bell – who schedules years in advance and does some 230 performances a year all over the globe – due to a suggestion from his New York-based manager, Matt Zelle.
Mr. Zelle is a LeClaire native who attended the concert with his family. And the fantastic evening was financially made possible through sponsors Regional Development Authority, Scott County Regional Authority and Modern Woodmen of America.
Mr. Smith led the first two Beethoven works without the benefit of music on his podium. As per tradition, all the musicians play from music stands, and the soloist plays from memory (itself a daunting feat).
The 1810 Egmont Overture featured characteristically cohesive, powerful playing. An exhilarating crescendo led to the piece's highly energetic, exciting finish. In remarks before the Beethoven Seventh Symphony (1813, and most recently done by the QCSO in 2016), Mr. Smith said we not only celebrate acclaimed artists like Mr. Bell, but the wonderful musicians who play here regularly.
“To have a hometown team like this is an amazing thing,” the conductor (himself a ball of energy) said. “We're not just high energy for the gala concerts. We're high energy month in and month out.”
Thursday's program was in part a tribute to the orchestra's German heritage; its first conductor and many founding players were German. “We honor that legacy today,” Mr. Smith said of the composers – including Max Bruch, who wrote the popular Violin Concerto No. 1 (1866).
The Beethoven symphony was a revelation, full of more rhythmic energy and dance. The first movement's jaunty, carefree flute theme was taken up by a very committed, full orchestra. More impressive crescendos showcased the ensemble's dynamic subtlety and sensitivity, leading to dramatic, sweeping themes.
A galloping section called to mind a triumphant cavalry coming in to save the day.
The intense, transfixing second movement offered stately strings in a minor key, and instrumental layering that provided counterpoint, and gradually a bountiful, overpowering sound. The gentle, recurring section in major gives a restful, consistent contrast.
The last two movements showed the orchestra in quicker, confident and joyful moods. We also luxuriated in that rich, sumptuous sound in slower sections. The frenzied, fast last movement aptly accelerated into what certainly felt like a finale. Mr. Smith, always fun to watch conduct, clearly seemed to be enjoying himself as well, coaxing the most out of his players.
The varied emotions and movement in the pieces were defined by his precise gestures.
After intermission, Mr. Smith did lead with music, and though Mr. Bell has undoubtedly played this perennial favorite countless times, he tore into it with the requisite passion, freshness and grace. He also is a very animated performer, really getting into it – matching the throbbing romanticism and soaring lyricism of the work.
When he plays, Mr. Bell sways his body, crouches down and tosses his hair – like the rock star that he is. This concerto is one of the most-often performed concertos for any instrument, the QCSO program said. Along with Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, it remains at the core of the 19th-century violin repertoire.
Fittingly, Mr. Bell's latest recording (he's done over 40 CDs since the late '80s) is comprised of these two Bruch works, with the famous Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – to be released in June. Named the music director of the orchestra in 2011, Mr. Bell is the only person to hold this post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the group in 1958. The violinist first recorded the Bruch G minor in 1988 under Mr. Marriner.
It was last done by the QCSO in October 2012, for the local debut of concertmaster Naha Greeholtz.
Thursday night, Mr. Bell made us all feel young at heart, bursting with possibilities and the thrill of new love. (A perfect date night.) The pyrotechnic, flashy passages of incredible difficulty and speed shone under his expertly controlled virtuosity. One entrance, so quiet and calm, demanded equal taste and control, which Mr. Bell delivered flawlessly.
Another sweet, seamless entrance – which still pierced the balcony where I sat – seemed to hauntingly appear out of the ether. Again, nothing seemed rote or routine with Mr. Bell and the orchestra. They knew this was a special night – on par with similar gala programs featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2015, and violinist Midori in 2011.
The orchestra matched Mr. Bell's strength and jaw-dropping prowess. Collaborating with great artists inspires, and fairly demands you bring your A game. They all hit for the fences and scores.
It's hard to believe Mr. Bell is 50, with his boyish good looks and dark brown hair; he could still pass for his 20s. After the transcendent 26-minute concerto ended, and the instant standing ovation, it was hard to believe. Did that just really happen? Was it all a fever dream?
Fortunately, Mr. Bell returned to the stage for an ideal encore, the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce's popular “Estrellita” (“My Little Star”). Originally written in 1914 for solo voice and piano, it was an adorable, comforting lullaby, and a perfect treat to top the show.
In his brief remarks, the honestly nice, unpretentious violinist said the QCSO "sounds amazing...One hundred three years old? They look great."
Some last Bs – Mr. Bell grew up and studied in Bloomington, Ind., home to the world-renowned Indiana University school of music, where he's now on faculty. I met my wife Betsy there, where we attended grad school (me at the music school).
Like the Bruch, those 30 years since we left IU have seemingly flown by, and I wish Betsy could have been there Thursday. Two final Bs – “Bravo” to all. #blessed.