Hats off to Celebrity Series of Boston for bringing Joshua Bell to Symphony Hall! It is quite something to imagine that a four-year old kid once tinkering with rubber bands would later be tucking a Stradivarius under his chin. With that instrument, the 43-year-old took the stage and altered the passage of time on Friday night, February 4. This, by the way, must be taken as a rave. A front row listener confirmed this at intermission: “Gee that first half of the program really went by quickly!”
Accompanist Sam Haywood (or better, “collaborator” and “acclaimed British pianist,” as he is described in the program notes), helped change the way time marched on. Together, they were a dream team, musically “joined at the hip.” Their striking boldness in Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 100 beautifully fulfilled the prone-to-seriousness music of Johannes Brahms. Luxurious articulation from both artists prevailed throughout the three movements. Here, and in the Fantasy in C Major, D. 934 of Franz Schubert, the two immersed themselves in the plentiful dialogues. Could I have actually heard the violin and piano sounding almost alike in certain passages?
It was quite something to watch the violinist, too. I asked a young listener seated nearby, who appeared to be enjoying it all, what he liked about it. “I have never seen him before. He’s quite theatrical and the Schubert, well, it’s the first time I have ever heard it; it’s long journey, crazy and fun.” I thought at times during the Schubert that I was really hearing something close to Jacques Offenbach and his can-can music! Opposite was the Brahms, leading openly toward the heart. The special pairing of the pieces showered a truly involved audience with wonder. Joshua Bell’s outpouring of violin love seemed boundless.
With Joshua Bell there is much to follow, but it is not made hard—not by any stretch of the imagination. For sure, his eye-catching musical dance reveals the music; it also summons the listener’s attention. His bowing speaks volumes. Frog or tip, his adventurous pressure and speed, what bite of the bow he will take or wisp across a string he might make, these, so many of them all details, are what power his music making. On the other hand (literally), his vibrato comes into play like that of a jazz singer. Where he begins and ends it, and that it is not a wide, but a concentrated vibrato, make for a deeply personal and interpretative performance. His connection to the instrument runs deep and naturally and that, ultimately, is his secret weapon.
Balance for Bell runs an unusual gamut from foreground to background. Taking backseat, so to speak, allowing the main attention to be given over to the piano’s part, exposed still another one of his many estimable stances; and pianist Haywood knew when to step up and when to retreat.
While I so admired their execution of Edvard Grieg’s too infrequently heard Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major, Opus 13, I did begin to feel a bit of fatigue coming on during the second half of the program. I believe it was due to my sensibility having nearly reached its limit vis-à-vis Romanticized passion and artistry. Perhaps if it had been toned done somewhat, the Grieg would have worked better given what had come before it. Both the performers and their music exuded a kind of energy and involvement that demanded the same from the audience, so all-encompassing is their way of music-making.
In a surprise move, Bell and Haywood added Jean Sibelius’s Romance and Henryk Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante on their recital. These were followed by an encore of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
Another rave is due Joshua Bell, violinist extraordinaire.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net