When Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell comes to town, it’s a hard one to miss.
Concertgoers dotted the lawn and packed the pavilion Wednesday night last week, some carrying binoculars to get an even closer look at the violinist. Farther back in Sun Valley Village, families set up chairs in semi-circles outside the lawn boundaries to enjoy the music for free—though with a background track of children playing nearby.
Unlike the rest of the Sun Valley Music Festival’s free concerts, general admission on the lawn for the Aug. 4 gala concert was $85 and pavilion tickets ran up to $550. That was to ensure that the festival can continue to attract over 50,000 guests annually and hundreds of budding young musicians each year in its chamber music programs.
The Festival Orchestra started off the evening with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy Overture, widely regarded as the composer’s first masterpiece and penned when he was just 29 years old at the recommendation of a friend, Mily Balakirev.
Conductor Alasdair Neale and the orchestra built a tragic Shakespearean world from scratch using Tchaikovsky’s three-part score. First came the foreboding “Friar Lawrence’s Piety” theme, then the pyrotechnic “Montagues and Capulets Battle” and passionate “Romeo and Juliet’s Romance.” Brooding, layered strings and winds pushed the plot toward an explosive boiling point at the end. In film lingo, you’d call it a “slow burn.”
The electricity generated on stage continued without a break. Dressed casually in his signature black button-down, a vigorous Bell, 53, jogged out on stage to deliver Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major.
The concerto—said by many to represent the peak of the composer’s success—premiered in Vienna around Christmas in 1806. Since then, it’s gained a reputation among violinists as one of the most intense cardiovascular workouts in music.
Bell pushed his 1713 Stradivarius to the limits on Wednesday, toeing the line between athleticism and unbridled expression. (The $4 million instrument was likely put through a similar ordeal in 1844, when a young Joseph Joachim performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Felix Mendelssohn at the baton.)
Performing his own cadenzas, or solo passages, Bell achieved a luminous tone with a powerful bow arm and perfectly executed octaves. As the principal conductor of London-based Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Chamber Orchestra, the violinist found it impossible at times not to physically guide the orchestra, using his bow to lightly conduct alongside Neale.
Perhaps most impressive were Bell’s cadenzas, which showcased his zero-to-100 virtuosity with ferocious double stops—or chords—that quickly gave way to more delicate, upper-register melodies. Overall, Bell’s compositions accurately mirrored Beethoven’s rapidly changing moods in the rest of the work.
To a standing ovation, Bell once again jogged backstage through the violin section and back on stage to take multiple bows. A hush fell over the audience for an encore: his own arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2.
“It’s so nice to be back at this incredible festival and the most amazing pavilion, anywhere,” Bell told the audience, wiping his brow. “This is an all-star orchestra and an all-star maestro [in Neale]. And the audience is pretty nice, too.”