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Joshua Bell plays and conducts: Mozart Divertimento in D, Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, and Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence arranged for string orchestra by Lucas Drew. Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 28.4.2006 (HS)

Before the concert, I would have predicted that the sensitive, soulful American violinist Joshua Bell would sail through Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence and tread carefully through the concert's first half of Mozart delicacies. Instead, Mozart got the more expressive approach and Bell consistently missed the possibilities in the Tchaikovsky.

The program was a strange idea, but held out the possibility of a charming evening. The San Francisco Symphony gave over one of its subscription concert weeks to Bell, who only in February appeared under the symphony's aegis in a recital. For this occasion, he played front and sort of conducted 25 musicians. It is to their credit that, even though the principals and associates were missing from all four string sections, they made lovely, idiomatic sounds. They seemed responsive to Bell's "conducting," which resembled the sort of body motions that a lead violinist uses to get things going in a string quartet.

That worked out fine in the Mozart pieces, nicely shaped classical phrasing through the pared-down orchestra lending charm to Bell's own refined playing. But the missing principals might have raised the level of musicianship and star quality in Souvenir de Florence, which came off as bland. Tchaikovsky wrote the piece as a sextet, giving each player key solos but, more importantly, stretching the accompanying and inner voices into intriguingly individual contributions.

Any chance at hearing those distinctive elements dissolved under Bell's relentlessly spongy approach. Time after time, telling moments evaporated from inattention. In the first movement, for example, Tchaikovsky writes several musical "pyramids," in which the voices enter in turn to created downward-moving arpeggios. It's critical, because he follows it with the same pyramids at double tempo to amp up the energy. Under Bell, it all sounded as if it were just another tune, no excitement whatsoever.

The same sort of missed opportunity softened the finale, where Tchaikovsky writes several measures in which the beat leading to the next measure holds two notes, then in the next measure three notes, and in the final measure, four. Again, the composer is trying to add energy. Bell just smooshed it over, made nothing of it.

In the slow movement, a tutti chorale interrupts a longingly gorgeous, arching melody. Bell and then violist Don Ehrlich spun out the tune gorgeously. With three musicians on a part instead of just one, the chorale should have erupted into something glorious, but instead of following Tchaikovsky's phrasing Bell just elided it all together into one long uninflected phrase. Bleah.

In the end, this was Tchaikovsky by way of Mantovani. Lovely, but way short of what's possible.

By contrast, Mozart's engaging Divertimento in D practically danced off the stage. Without a hair out of place, it managed to build energy with well-thought-out phrasing, dynamic shadings giving each repeated phrase a fresh sound, building a relaxed and refreshing minor edifice of music. The Presto finale was especially fine.

The concerto adds two horns and two oboes to the strings, which made for a pleasant relief from the chamber music sound of the opening and closing pieces. With the exception of some uncharacteristic horn bobbles, the musicians romped through the concerto with all the necessary élan, phrasing as beautifully as they did in the Divertimento.

Bell's playing throughout reflected his usual clear-eyed approach, just sentimental enough to lend the requisite feeling to the music. He is a wonderful musician, maybe not the most thought-provoking, but he brings many kinds of music to life through his violin. Performing this music with a real conductor certainly would have made a difference. There's more to getting a group of musicians to create an interpretation that Bell showed on this occasion.

Harvey Steiman



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