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Pauline Lerner

Joshua Bell in Concert

March 15, 2008 at 6:25 AM

About three weeks ago I heard Joshua Bell in concert playing a genre I hadn’t heard him play before, violin/piano duo with pianist Jeremy Denk. I think every seat in the concert hall was taken. A few days before the concert, the Kennedy Center announced that it would put some extra chairs onstage, behind the musicians, for desperate fans of Bell. The price of the seats onstage started at $95. I had a much cheaper seat in a good location, two flights above the stage on the left (facing the stage), and with my opera glasses I could see Bell and his violin as if they were within arm’s reach.

Joshua chose four very different pieces for the concert. He started with Tartinis Devil’s Trill, which is devilishly difficult to play in parts. It gave him an opportunity to show off his well known pyrotechnics. In an interview ( about this piece, he said “It's a fun reminder that virtuoso violin playing was not invented in the 19th century. Tartini was a great virtuoso.” The interviewer asked Joshua whether the namesake trill in the final movement was difficult for him, and he replied, “It's not easy. I'm still working on it right now. There's doing it and then there's doing it really well. And you can always get it better. It's technique, and it does take work.” Joshua must have done a lot of work preparing the trill because he sounded dazzling. The absolutely clean articulation, the speed, and the feeling of excitement he generated were awesome.

The next piece was Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1. It sounded rather cold and austere to me, and it was the piece on the program that I enjoyed the least.

Four Romantic Pieces by Dvorak were very different from all that went before, and I really enjoyed them. The violin part was warm and gentle and seemed to roll along very smoothly. It brought to my mind scenes of the foothills of the Blue Ridge, where I used to spend a lot of time. Among the gentle rolling sound, there were some very subtle changes in mood and color in the violin part. You won’t notice them if you let the music lull you to sleep. Josh handled the small changes in mood just as well as he handled the big change in Tartini’s Trill and in the Romantic concertos for which he is famous.

The final movement is altogether different from the preceding ones. It is dark and grieving, and the very last notes just fade away.

The last piece on the program, Sonata No. One in D Minor by Saint-Saens, resembles the Dvorak in having a relatively smooth surface with lots of movement going on underneath. In the last movement, the violin zooms off in a flurry of fast notes. Here was another chance for Josh to show off, and he made the most of it.

At the end of the program, Josh looked rather tired, but the audience applauded and shouted out enough to get two encore pieces from him. The first was his own arrangement of a song by Faure, in which his violin sang beautifully. The second was Heifetz’s adaptation of The March of the Marionettes from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges, which Josh played vividly and brilliantly.

On a personal note, I have watched and wondered about Josh’s posture, which I’ve seen in photos, but in a more exaggerated sense in person. During most of the concert, his neck was arched back and his head tilted back as though he were looking at the ceiling. Sometimes his chin came right off of the chinrest. I couldn’t help thinking that he will develop severe pain in his neck, shoulders, and back if he continues to play this way.

It has been almost a year since Joshua Bell played in a Washington DC Metro station and almost no one stopped to listen. When he played at the Kennedy Center, every seat was occupied and additional chairs were put onstage behind Bell. Even at the starting price of $95, every seat was sold. The audience’s reaction to everything he played was wildly enthusiastic. Josh, I hope this compensates for the cool reception you got at the Metro station.

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