Bells ring true: Joshua and Christopher offer exalting sound

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

It was hot and muggy last Wednesday, but that didn’t stop the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their guest soloist, violinist Joshua Bell, from drawing a large crowd at Ravinia.

Bell was the soloist for Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” a work drawing extensively on melodies of Scottish folk songs. His performance was burnished, featuring sweetly executed high notes and introspective drama. His playing was characterized by fluency and artful phrasing and his rapid passages were dazzling and seemed to flow effortlessly from his instrument. Bell was particularly adept at graceful changes in tempo and infused an engaging friskiness into some of the faster passages.

The orchestra was led by guest conductor Andrey Boreyko, who found joy in the boisterous moments. He was over-enthused in the loudest sections, almost shouting, but at other volumes there was a crispness of sound.

After rousing applause Bell offered an encore: The “Méditation” from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thaïs.” Bell was both thoughtful and passionate and the orchestra offered lush support with airy and pleasing work from the harp. The audience loved it.

After the intermission Boreyko led the CSO in music from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” The composer created three different suites of music from this work, and Boreyko distilled his own collection from all three suites.

It opened with “The Montagues and Capulets,” where there was sweeping drama that set the stage for the balance of the performance. The “Morning Dance” was peppy and “Juliet as a Young Girl” was fleet and conjured up the image of a maiden rushing hither and thither with innocent enthusiasm

“Masks” saw fine work from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh while the scene “Romeo and Juliet” lacked much needed transparency from the orchestra. There was menace in the “Death of Tybalt,” and “Romeo and Juliet before Parting” had splendid work from the saxophone. The reprise of “The Montagues and Capulets” was bracing, ending the piece with marvelous softness.

The Grant Park Chorus has in recent years given an annual concert at the South Shore Cultural Center, and this year’s concert, taking place last Thursday, was utterly splendid.

Christopher Bell led the group in a performance of Rachmaninov’s “All-Night Vigil Service” (“Vespers”). It was a performance of great power and showcased the incredible talent of this chorus.

From the outset, the marvelous blend of the singers was on display. They sang with ringing tone, at times clearly suggesting church bells, and Bell evoked gorgeous phrasing. In some cases, a single chord would rise and fall in volume in an entrancing arc of sound.

In “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” soloist Corinne Wallace-Crane offered a dark chocolate sound and drew out the dignity of the music and text. In “Blessed Be the Man” there was beautiful attention paid to the soundings of the Alleluias as well as bracing tempo shifts executed with perfection. “Lord, Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart” featured clarion sound from soloist Hoss Brock. There was reverence and beauty in “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos” and the altos here had particularly beautiful sound.

“Praise the Name of the Lord” had some notably fine work by the basses, who were a splendid anchor throughout the evening. Their lowest sounds (down to a perilously difficult B-flat) were powerful and well articulated.

The work was infused with energy and Bell’s dynamics were consistently interesting. When he drew on the full volume of his ensemble, the sound propelled itself throughout the huge room on the north side of the cultural center and left the listener in awe.

It was a marvelous performance, not soon to be forgotten.