Review: It was a merry musical evening at NAC featuring violinist Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell. Photo: Bill Phelps

Old chestnuts, new creations, sleigh bells and choirs, an international virtuoso, even a carol singalong to two — NACO’s sold-out Christmas concert on Wednesday had something for every music lover on Santa’s Nice list.

The biggest gift under the tree was the Canadian premiere of The Man with the Violin, a new multimedia work for violinist Joshua Bell and co-commissioned by NACO and the National Symphony in Washington D.C. Bell’s viral 2007 busking experiment in the DC Metro inspired a children’s book by Kathy Stinson, sensitively illustrated by Dušan Petričić. In Stinson’s story, Bell’s performance is described through the ears and eyes of an observant, wonderstruck little boy named Dylan. This book has been turned into a multimedia family performance, with an expressive, cinematic score by Anne Dudley, delicate animations of Petričić’s watercolours and, bien sur, a bilingual narration (entertainingly delivered by Manon St- Jules, who has a wonderful ear.).

Dudley has given Bell’s fiddling plenty of space to soar and float. Fans of the violinist’s showy, ecstatic, passionate brand of playing were certainly not disappointed. But I hope they also took notice of the many smaller, quieter moments in Dudley’s orchestral writing, like the swaying rumble of a subway train, or the dancing, Debussy-like depiction of rain.  

At his best, Bell can be deeply emotional and spontaneous. At his worst, I find him superficial, undisciplined and excessive … all visual style and no aural substance or subtlety. This was the Bell we got for Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: all that effort spent grimacing and showboating could have been applied to his queasy intonation and haphazard phrasing.

There was more restrained, refined musicality from the men, boys and girls of Christ Church Cathedral. Andrew McAnerney has taken over the directorship of the Men and Boys choir from Matthew Larkin, and coaxed a luminous sound from them in a striking arrangement of Silent Night. Meanwhile, despite their rather lean numbers, the girls did a wonderful job in three excerpts from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, with crisp, alert singing under their director, James Calkin, beautifully supported by harpist Manon LeComte.

Alexander Shelley was in his chameleon element, reminiscing fondly to the audience about musical Christmases of his childhood, hamming it up for a jolly Sleigh Ride, encouraging the audience to Willcocks their hearts out in O Come, All ye Faithful or turning serious for Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves Fantasia, dignified and richly gleaming as a Tudor portrait.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.