You know it promises to be an interesting evening when center stage has no podium, no baton, no sheet music.
In the case of Monday's Philharmonic Society of Orange County concert in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the coveted spot — often graced by the world's great conductors — oftentimes had no one.
That's because the evening's performing ensemble in the Costa Mesa venue — Academy of St. Martin in the Fields — has no conductor.
Rather, the acclaimed London-based chamber orchestra is headed by American violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who pulls double duty by leading the group and performing in pieces himself. On Monday, the result was a refreshing mix of a well-honed classic — Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major — and some lesser-played works by the masters, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1.
Plussing the menu was "Elegy," a piece arranged for strings by Benjamin Britten and taken from Schumann's Violin Concerto. It was written in memory of Dennis Brain, the famed French horn player who died in 1957.
"Elegy" was perhaps the enjoyable selection of the evening for me, with wonderful passages from principal cellist Stephen Orton.
The Philharmonic Society enjoyed a good turnout for a Monday night of classical music. The hall was about three-fourths full.
The evening began with the Prokofiev, which is only about 13 minutes long — short for most symphonies — and demonstrates styles from the period sensibilities of Haydn and Mozart.
Instantly, we knew that we were in for a fine night of music, as the woodwinds in particular demonstrated their world-class skills with a playful virtuosity. Indeed, the orchestra kept it remarkably light throughout all the pieces — clean, crisp, little edge to speak of.
Restrained English flair, one might call it.
Second on the program was Bell taking center stage with his Stradivarius violin, believed to have been made by the Italian master in 1713. Bell takes deserved praise for his interpretation of Tchaikovsky's seminal work.
Last came Beethoven's 8th, a remarkably different and brief composition from the same mind who composed the far superior 7th and 9th symphonies, the latter being one of the significant human achievements of any artistic medium.
Like its rendition of the Prokofiev, the Academy of St. Martin demonstrated enviable precision and clarity, its ranks clearly among the best of the world's musicians.
For music lovers who want to hear more Beethoven, they shouldn't miss the Philharmonic Society's next concert Tuesday, also in the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It features the Polish Baltic Philharmonic, led by conductor Boguslaw Dawidow. Pianist Marcin Koziak is the featured soloist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5.
The program also includes Beethoven's "Egmont Overture" and his Fifth Symphony.