Thanksgiving is a time to feel gratitude for things we take for granted during the rest of the year. So it’s appropriate that the violinist Joshua Bell is appearing this week with the New York Philharmonic.
Bell is one of classical music’s biggest, most salable stars, and he tours diligently. But he doesn’t take on new work with the enthusiasm of Renée Fleming, or unveil splashy unions of Bach and social justice like Yo-Yo Ma. Less noticed by the press than those two — and many others far less famous — Bell just plays, rarely veering these days from the absolute center of the standard repertory.
But if he just plays, that playing is almost uncannily lovely. On Wednesday at Alice Tully Hall, he made not a single ugly sound in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. At 53, his face remains preternaturally youthful, and his tone is similarly unlined. If the solo part in this work is often an exuberant unspooling of golden wire, Bell’s wire was always gleaming and smooth, never thin or cutting.
When he wasn’t playing, he swayed a bit to the orchestral accompaniment, and sometimes turned from the audience entirely to take in the mass of musicians. (While Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director, was on the podium at Tully, Bell, who has led the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields for almost 10 years, is by now used to leading an ensemble while soloing.) At one point he even made a tiny, enthusiastic stomp on the stage.
But while Bell is a genial partner for an ensemble, there is something sedate about him — always enjoyable, never intense or unexpected. He is, for better and worse, dependability itself.
He came closest to surprising in the cadenza he created for the first movement, which had ruminative dissonances and lively string crossings. But you would have to be generous to describe even this as truly passionate.
The Philharmonic played with mahogany-rich ardor in the strings in that opening movement, and its winds were graceful in the second. In the third, van Zweden paced a burnished Allegro, more aristocratic than fun or wild. That seemed just fine for Bell, whose playing smiles but never grins, and certainly never loses its cool.
The program was an inversion of the usual ordering of a concert’s halves. The Beethoven concerto, at 45 minutes the most substantial work, sat alone before intermission; after the pause came Chen Yi’s brief but meaty and varied “Duo Ye” for chamber orchestra, then Stravinsky’s 25-minute “Pulcinella” Suite.
Those last two pieces played well together. Written in the 1980s and inspired by a folk performance Chen attended around a bonfire in a Chinese village, “Duo Ye” has vitality in passages for sharp, crisp percussion and mystery in its dreamy duet of violas and vibraphone. Perhaps it was the program’s juxtaposition, but Stravinsky seemed in the air: Some moments in “Duo Ye” evoked a friendlier “Rite of Spring,” others the woodblock-stark angularity of “Les Noces” — both pieces which, like Chen’s, locate in the primitive a genesis of modernism.
“Pulcinella” was also a modernist’s look back — but to the graceful energy of early 18th-century Italian music, which Stravinsky transposed into airy yet tender arrangements. Including bright, buoyant playing by the flutist Alison Fierst and by the featured string quintet at the work’s center, the eight sections on Wednesday had holiday conviviality.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Saturday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.
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