Above – Joshua Bell. Cover – Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Photos – Peter Wallis.

Joshua Bell has played with nearly every major conducted orchestra in the world and yet, in his opinion orchestras don’t need conductors. A debatable viewpoint. Interestingly, when Sir Neville Marriner founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields 65 years ago, he, like Bell led from the front as a violinist but then gravitated towards the baton. Bell has reinvigorated the conductor-free tradition and, as he now commands one of the world’s finest player-led orchestras in the vein of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, there could well be more than a grain of truth to his conviction.

There isn’t a baton, a trembling shaping arm or a stern pose in sight, at 55, he exudes boyish energy but, there’s no doubt he’s the captain, the ruler. Leadership resides in his moves, how he dances the rhythms, jives to the momentum, emphasises contrasts, explores every interpretative nook and cranny, the highs and lows. A fan of brisk speed, he drives the ensemble to the brink of danger and his restless body channels the repertoire’s story.

And yes, he’s a consummate storyteller whether he’s the soulful soloist in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor spinning convincing melodic lines with the orchestra’s boldly drawn undertow, or he is the showy, astonishing virtuoso in Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

As a soloist, he glides through tricky passages as naturally as drawing breath, his bow skittering over the strings at the speed of light and then he absently gazes into the audience before delivering a high note which pierces the orchestral sound like a beam of light.

ASMF draws the audience into the architecture, shining a torch on the grander spaces, the hallways and gardens and through imaginative shading it reveals the balance and elegance and contradictions within each composer’s design. Prokofiev’s neo-classical, tongue-in-cheek Symphony no. 1 recalling Haydn was a suitable vehicle for Bell and crew to demonstrate this ability although the performance made the least impact in a concert of superlative standard.

A fierce pride flows from the ensemble players, the violas smile at favourite peaks, there’s a hair trigger responsiveness, soaring crescendi, razor slashed accents and an intensity which translates a repeated note accompaniment into a heavy, pulsing riff. Bell whispers, the orchestra roars. The trust is palpable, communication, crystal. There’s a distinctive sound. Immense power. The latter shown to advantage in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with its theatrical peaks. Listening to this classy outfit’s outstanding concert was a privilege, even if the program was unnecessarily conservative and underestimated an Australian audience’s cultural sophistication.

Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with Australian Stage Online, InReview, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Good Reading, The Strad (UK) Cut Common, Loudmouth, and Artist Profile. Her short stories have been published with Dillydoun Review, Antonym, Dewdrop, Unbelievable Stories and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal. Her memoir, Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ.

Event details

Queensland Performing Arts Centre presents
Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell

Music Director Joshua Bell

Venue: Concert Hall | QPAC, Cultural Centre, South Bank QLD
Dates: 11 – 12 October 2023
Bookings: qpac.com.au | 136 246

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