Galilee Chamber Orchestra makes a fresh and energetic Carnegie Hall debut

Sat Mar 19, 2022 at 12:07 pm
By George Grella
Joshua Bell performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, led by Saleem Ashkar, Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Stefan Cohen.

Carnegie Hall’s annual Isaac Stern Memorial concert returned Friday night, after 2020-21’s pandemic interruption. The event featured a familiar face on the Carnegie stage—violinist Joshua Bell—and the impressive Carnegie debut of a relatively young ensemble making its first North American tour: the Galilee Chamber Orchestra.

Conducted by Saleem Ashkar, the chamber orchestra draws from professional orchestras in Israel and young musicians from the Polyphony Conservatory. Founded in 2012, it is made up in equal numbers by Jewish and Arab musicians. Friday night, it played mainly familiar European concert music from the 18th and 19th centuries: Haydn’s “Fire” Symphony (No. 59); Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with Bell as soloist; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, along with the New York premiere of a recent work by Karim Al-Zand, a Canadian-American composer originally from Tunisia.

This was fine music-making through and through, and with Bell at his expected level of command and musicality, an apt tribute to Stern.

The violins in the orchestra were slightly underpowered in the opening movements of both symphonies, but other than that the playing was completely satisfying. Ashkar stuck to the basics of interpretation, meaning tempos and dynamics, though with great skill and judgement. One found both so well-chosen and managed they were barely noticeable. Except, that is, in the first moment of Symphony No. 59, where changes in dynamics were extreme in a positive sense; dramatic and stimulating.

That movement felt slightly unsettled, as if several times the ensemble seemed poised to move in an unexpected direction, putting an idiosyncratic emphasis on a particular aspect of form or rhythm. As the performance moved on, though, one realized that was likely a case of adrenalin, or maybe nerves, as the playing settled into a straightforward, and enticing, warm sound that didn’t balance sections so much as emulsify them into a grainy, glowing whole.

The orchestra sounded both like a smaller group and a larger one. The precise, circumspect phrasing and rhythms were that of a chamber ensemble, with a full orchestral sound. There was an intriguing nostalgic quality there, none of the acrylic refinement of large, modern orchestras, much more of a set of analog, back-lit pastels.

There was a vivacious energy all night, especially when Bell joined. As he mentioned in remarks to the audience, he’s been playing this Bruch concerto since he was a child. That made the fresh feeling of his performance even more impressive.

Bell’s playing was expressive without being sentimental. His singing tone was a pleasure to hear, and he generated real excitement as the concerto developed. Along with his gracefulness in the Adagio, he and the orchestra played with exceptional style, wringing the last bit of music out of each phrase, and Bell seemed to relish the fast passages in the Finale, using the runs of notes to burrow his way through and out of the score. A concise encore settled down the cheering crowd: the Prelude from Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, which Bell played with concertmaster Guy Figer in an arrangement by Levon Atovmyan.

The only complaint about Al-Zand’s Luctus Profugis is that it was two short. His own response to the ongoing refugee crises, he used the spare idea of a three-note phrase on the vibraphone, a rising half-step-whole step—underneath a winding string melody that grows in power as it changes direction. This brought out the warm sound in the orchestra, and accumulated meaning and richness, before it ended just when it had laid out a full set of ideas to explore.

The performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony was excellent. It was great to hear the agility and humor in this music, the smaller group giving it space for light to shine through, room to breath. Phrasing and articulation were crisp but also strong, and pace was terrific throughout. This was heightened in the opening to the finale, which was hesitant in just the right way, not tentative but with a kind of winking poise, ready to leap into what comes next. That was a fleet and uplifting Allegro molto e vivace that, like the rest of the performance, sounded just right.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra and pianist Mitsuko Uchida play Mozart and Purcell, 8 pm, Friday, March 25.

Leave a Comment

" "


 Subscribe via RSS