Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 27, 2008

Hartford Symphony & Joshua Bell

Bushnell, Hartford
September 24, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Expectations that the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s 2008-09 opening concert and 65th birthday celebration would be a gala affair were exceeded by the musicians under the direction of Edward Cumming and the virtuoso performances by the acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell and an exciting newcomer, organist Christopher Houlihan.

Rossini’s deceptively simple "Overture to The Thieving Magpie" was delightful from the opening snare drumming through sprightly dances, an arresting crescendo, and concluding with a rouser-douser finale. Dvorak’s "Carnival Overture" devoked introspection and exuberant emotions and expansive congeniality culminating in a lively conclusion.

The two overtures were the bookends for the "Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra" by Samuel Barber. The Austin concert organ, a massive cube, was wheeled into place and plugged in. The soloist, Houlihan, age 20, a senior at Hartford’s Trinity College, preceded Maestro Cumming across the stage, walking to the hulking organ as if he were about to reunite with a good friend. Well, they are. The organ responded to his friend’s every wish regardless of location – tiered keys, pedals, pulls. A one-man orchestra in perpetual motion. A pedal solo, black shoes flashing with the speed of fingers. Stunning. Standing ovation. Self-named "Houli-Fans" cheered. The encore reinforced the authenticity of the audience’s enthusiasm.

Following intermission, Joshua Bell stood at stage center, touched his bow to his 300-year-old Stradivarius violin and fused with Tchaikovsky’s "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major." Bell’s mastery made the familiar new; the combination of artist and composer generated pure bliss. The birds Bell has charmed out of the trees live within his violin. He propelled their gossamer song to its highest note where it turned into mist. Yet bowing into the lower depths conjured a cello’s rich mellowness. His rapid tapping with the bow was a gentle metronome, not a tempo to intimidate. Following a standing ovation and four curtain calls, he pleasured his admirers with a selection from "The Red Violin." More curtain calls. Now only 41, he’s a violinist for the ages.