Violin Virtuoso Josh Bell Sparkles in Philharmonic's Pagan Program

When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in May of 1913,

Josh Bell (Photo courtesy of Chris Lee)

When Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in May of 1913, its thorny polyrhythms and pagan-inspired choreography completely unnerved the audience, whose booing and catcalls eventually erupted into a full-blown riot. Even after the police intervened, chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance as bar-room-style brawls broke out in the Parisian aisles, sending the evening into the annals of music history.

There was, however, no noted misconduct at the New York Philharmonic’s Wednesday evening concert in Avery Fisher Hall last week (although we did spy several hefty rings that The Observer briefly mistook for brass knuckles). In fact, the most visible action Stravinsky’s polytonalities provoked in the audience was a bit of toe-tapping from elderly feet stretched in the aisles.

Wednesday was the first of four performances conducted by the 36-year-old Daniel Harding, who, after getting his start assisting the esteemed British conductor Simon Rattle, frequently trots the globe, leading the world’s premier ensembles. Mr. Harding is certainly not one of the most flamboyant of his peers, tending to forgo oversized gestures in favor of succinct, driven movements. The masterful playing of the ensemble conjured visions of the haunting ballet, from the frenetic brass cries in “Dance of the Earth” to the asymmetrically feverish “Sacrificial Dance, the movement in which the chosen virgin dances to her death. Listening to Stravinsky’s piece played by the Phil is like riding an orchestral roller coaster: it’s so visceral one’s stomach drops with each forte.

The evening opened with Scottish composer Oliver Knussen’s Flourish With Fireworks, a three-minute piece that lived up to its title, sparkling and popping with zeal.

Next up was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, which was famously critiqued after its 1881 premiere by Eduard Hanslick in Vienna’s Neue freie Presse as “vulgar,” the product of “hideous notation,” particularly the first movement, in which the violin was, as he put it, “pulled, torn, drubbed.” While the solo violin part was deemed practically unplayable by leading violinists of the composer’s day (it requires tremendous endurance), the piece now stands one of the most beautifully lyrical legacies of the famous Russian composer.

Rising to the challenge was violinist Josh Bell, whose immense talent and charming blue-eyed head shots have earned him a loyal following of enamored female fans. He may be—dare we say it?—the Justin Bieber of violin soloists, at least in terms of star power. Mr. Bell’s virtuosic mastery of his instrument brought to life Tchaikovsky’s work, written while the composer vacationed on the shores of Lake Geneva, recuperating from a bout of depression.

The 44-year-old Mr. Bell first stepped into the spotlight at the age of 14 when he debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Ricardo Muti. Since then, the Avery Fischer Prize recipient and Musical America 2010 Instrumentalist of the Year has enjoyed immense success and a consistently full house, Wednesday night being no exception. Mr. Bell played the demanding passages in the opening Allegro of Tchaikovsky’s relentless concerto with superhuman agility, maintaining an intense look of concentration that quickly vanished as he gracefully wiped his brow during the orchestral interludes.

Mr. Bell managed to weave the three movements together into a comprehensive piece, his emotive legatos in the second movement balancing the challenging dance-like cadenzas in the Allegro vivacissimo. Members of his fan club sprang to their feet abruptly after the first movement, awarding their hero a well-deserved standing ovation. Although this was only Mr. Bell’s first performance of the week, we had the feeling that he would continue to play to an exuberant full house, perhaps provoking yet another historical fight, should he decide to dole out a limited amount of autographs.

Violin Virtuoso Josh Bell Sparkles in Philharmonic's Pagan Program