Mostly Bach But Also Some Schumann: Joshua Bell, Andrew Manze, and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra 8-18-15

The first item on the program of Tuesday’s concert was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, which, like the Schumann symphony after the intermission, used the full orchestra; a smaller set of musicians remained to accompany violinist Joshua Bell for the second item, Bach’s violin concerto in E major, BWV 1042, which Bell directed himself.

Bell’s approach to the concerto was one of lightness and ease – the feel was of sliding or skating along the surface of the melodic line; I had the same impression during the third movement. This is merely an interpretive preference on my part, but I like Bach playing that digs into the notes a little more. The second movement, though, was interesting in that I noticed the shift in balance that comes from a live performance. Even with a small orchestra, the violin part is less forward, and you hear more of the relation between the orchestral and solo parts, e.g. I ended up getting focused on the first violin part’s interaction with the solo violin.

Next came an item to make Bach turn over in his grave, if you are of a purist turn of mind. (Though, as Bell pointed out in his brief introduction to the piece, they were performing the same program again the following day, so if Bach did turn over, he’d get flipped back right way round the following evening.) This was the Chaconne (the long final movement) from BWV 1004, with accompaniment written by Felix Mendelssohn and arranged by modern composer Julian Malone.

I am not a fan of Bach accompaniments written by Felix Mendelssohn. Bell’s performance had the same lightness I heard in the concerto, but the feel of the playing here was a little firmer – he leaned into the notes a little more – but what he was doing with the Bach piece was hard to appreciate with all the extra racket. The added accompaniment changed the piece more than I expected. Its shape and color, even the rhythm, seemed different – to my ears at least, the additions distorted more than they revealed. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting or reworking previous material. That said, it depends on the piece and what is done with it. With the Bach Chaconne, given the solitary intensity of the original, it’s as if you were going to have a conversation with a cranky and complicated friend whose opinion you value, and then suddenly a third party invites themselves and several of their rackety mid-romantic friends along because that would be more fun, right? Nope. Turns out it’s not more fun. Along similar lines, it’s true that there is nothing ethically wrong with adding shots of dessert flavor and sugar and caramel to your coffee; it is also true that I am allowed to prefer my coffee left alone so I can actually taste it.

And then after the intermission we had Schumann’s second symphony. I have never been able to love Schumann’s symphonies. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t happened – and this is one I particularly have trouble getting into. The first movement in particular, with that pointless little theme that rises up, and then just goes “eh, fuck it” and sort of rumples away. Who writes a theme like that?

That said, Andrew Manze and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra were winning me over by the scherzo; then, with the slow, crystalline third movement, which always makes me think of water frozen over – well, I admit to rather liking it this time around; and the last movement, like the second, showed off what Manze, who is known primarily as a baroque violinist, can do when he focuses that early music crispness and clarity on romantic-era material. It was big and grand and colorful and exciting, but still clean and precise. I missed some bits of it because the guy sitting behind me appeared to have some kind of voluntary version of end-stage tuberculosis – I say voluntary because when another member of his party hissed at him to stop with the hacking and noisy breathing he stopped it – but them’s the breaks, I guess.