Chetana Nagavajara


            It started raining in the late afternoon, and the rain continued the whole night. That did not deter the crowd which showed up at the Thailand Cultural Centre in the evening of 4 September 2018 to hear Joshua Bell. The Main Hall had very few empty seats, most probably reserved for those distinguished guests who did not show up. The public must have known Joshua Bell from the clip of his playing in a New York Subway Station, and they wanted to do better than those New York ignoramuses. Yet this same audience let down a great artist like Gidon Kremer some years back, who has never come back to this City of Angels again. And let us not forget: the histrionics of Sarah Chang sent them into raptures. Let us face it: the ups and downs of classical music here depend a great deal of the efficiency or inefficiency of PR.

            Be that as it may, they could not have gone wrong with Joshua Bell. But interests in the artist also entailed interests in his instrument. The evening before the concert, the former manager of the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra was writing on his Facebook about the heavenly sound of the instrument used by the artist during the rehearsals, and how this enriched his playing.  It was a Strad. And I too was looking forward to that heavenly gift. Well, I started off by speaking about the rain, and the humidity of the rain could have had some effect on the violin played by Joshua Bell. It did not radiate as it should have done. Paradoxically, the Thai principal of the viola section had a long and beautiful solo passage to play in Elgar’s “From the South”, and the sound of his (definitely cheaper) instrument penetrated the Main Hall of the Thailand Cultural Centre such that he received an ovation at the end of the concert. Having compared notes with a few friends who attended the concert, I now realize that I had a bad seat. (But I did have seats in the same row on earlier occasions and had no difficulty in hearing the soloists!) I have digressed with an intention: let us concentrate on purely musical matters.

            There was absolute perfection in Bell’s playing of the Bruch Violin Concerto and Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen”. Such good taste and sophistication in an age that exhibitionism reigns supreme! There was an amazing integrity in his rendition of the two compositions. As regards the Bruch Concerto, my yardstick has always been the first long note played on the G string. Bell’s entry was serene, foreshadowing great things to come. Yet I cannot lie to myself: Bell played differently from other violinists I had heard in this concert hall. Even when he got “aggressive”, his aggressiveness was marked by refinement. It was never raw or coarse.   

            If I could not rely on my ears for an explanation, then I had to rely my eyes. Bell was not standing in front of the orchestra as most soloists do. He positioned himself inside the orchestra, so to speak: he was listening to their playing all the time, and at times he was looking at the musicians. “Chamber music!” I exclaimed inwardly to myself.  He did not want to project himself beyond the orchestra; he wanted to remain a “primus inter pares”. And that went beyond the physical. The concerto and the violin-and-orchestra piece of (fake) gypsy music were conceived by Bell as symphonic compositions. His playing was highly violinistic, but it refused to be thoroughly solistic. This certainly could become problematic, especially with the “Zigeunerweisen”. The gypsy fiddler has become so refined and sophisticated as though the  re-education at a renowned European or American conservatory had been so effective as to have de-gypsied him. (But Sarasate was no gypsy to start with. It is just a matter of imitation of style, like the 12  classical Thai imitations of the musical  styles of our neighbours!)

I cannot be certain to what extent his directorship of one of the best chamber orchestras of the West, namely  the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, has had an impact of his approach to music in any identifiable way. (We know that he directs the orchestra from the position of the soloist-cum-concertmaster.)  But that the spirit of chamber music was pervasive in his music-making in the evening of 4 September in Bangkok cannot be mere fantasy. If that had been the case, then the conductor and the orchestra would have had to rethink their music-making as well. Alas, they probably did not have time to do that. In spite of my idiosyncratic fixation, my estimation of Joshua Bell as one of the leading violinsits of today never wanes.

            Allow me to turn to the programme as a whole, which was well thought out, and we owe the conductor, Charles Olivier-Munroe, a debt of gratitude. The five compositions presented did hang together logically. Carl Maria von Weber ushered in a self-assertive German tradition, to which Max Bruch also belonged. And when the violin figured as the solo instrument in this concert, it was only fitting to pay homage to Bach with his “Chaconne”, even in the form of a rearrangement for the symphony orchestra by Joachim Raff. And if Lord Yehudi Menuhin, who came from the classical school, once related how he experienced first-hand the kind of “natural” violin-playing, when he went to take lessons with his teacher Enesco in his home town Bucharest, it was also appropriate to include Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” in the programme in order to demonstate the “classical’ school’s recognition of the “natural” school. As for Elgar’s “In the South”, it owes much to the Central European musical culture with its longing for the South.

            The programme started with Weber’s Overture to the opera “Euryanthe”. In this first piece of the evening, the RBSO demonstated its professional qualities by way of some exquisite phrasing, especially in the soft passages. Unfortunetely, the symphonic arrangement of the “Chaconne’ was not as well played, and it was obvious that the orchestra could have done with a couple more rehearsals. The contrapuntal passages remained problematic. Upon further reflection, I could not help questioning whether it was the performance or the composition itself that was problematic. How can an orchestral arragement do justice to this acme of the solo violin repertoire? What impressed me  most was “In the South” by Sir Edward Elgar, which I heard for the first time in my life at this concert, and I assume that the work must have been unknown to most members of the orchestra too. Elgar adroitly exploits to the full the potential of the modern symphony orchestra, and the RBSO played it with such freshness and vivacity that made the listening so enjoyble. We know that Elgar owed much to the German School, and I was scratching my head as to where the impetus could have come from. It did not sound Wagnerian to me. As I was looking at the programme notes, I discovered that the “Overture” was premièred at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, by the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester in 1904. That brought back to me memories of those uplifting evenings with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli in the late 1950s. One particular piece, whose orchestration sounds almost like this Elgar composition and is still rining in my my ears even today, is Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes”. Although Liszt was a Hungarian and spent much time in France, his role as one of the leaders of the “New German School” should not be forgotten, in spite of the adverse criticism made by Schumann and his supporters – But that’s a long story! How strange that an English composer could have (unconsciously perhaps) carried its banner with such conviction and that an orchestra in such distant climes should have performed it so convincingly.


Yet I must not forget the most important message that we should have learned from the visit of Maestro Joshua Bell. Chamber music lies at the root of Western musical culture. If he should decide to return to this land of smiles again, he should be asked to come back with a chamber orchestra or as a chamber musician. We need help to probe the spiritual depths of Western music. Bell is definitely one of the few who can do it.


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