Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Confession

A confession: I was prepared to be disappointed by Joshua Bell.

Of course, a critic should always go to a performance with an open mind. But I couldn’t ignore two things.

First, celebrity performers rarely live up to their hype, simply because the magic of art can’t be conjured at will. When Itzhak Perlman was here, my reaction was, “he’s good, but he’s no Itzhak Perlman.” (Ten points to anyone who can identify the musician from whom I stole that construction.) Second, I’d heard Bell’s recent CD, “Voice of the Violin,” on which the combination of bland playing and soft-light-and-a-glass-of-wine repertoire turned me off. The line between reaching out to a wider audience and simple pandering is always fuzzy, but this CD was pushing it. (Of course, the CD has topped the Billboard classical chart for the past four weeks.)

So at the back of my mind was the thought that Bell might be dull and overhyped.

He was anything but. His musical personality was intensely individual — as individual as that of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who played the same Brahms concerto so brilliantly here a few years ago. He isn’t as powerfully communicative a performer as Salerno-Sonnenberg, at least not in a large hall like the Pikes Peak Center: She is, to put it in the most un-PC terms possible, a much more masculine player than Bell, with a bigger tone and more aggressive approach. Though Bell could deliver some fireworks, he was best in the introspective passages. I’d love to hear him in a more intimate recital setting.

Where Bell surpassed even the best soloists who’ve come to Colorado Springs was in communicating his vision of the piece to the orchestra. As individual as the playing was, this was not Bell AND orchestra but Bell WITH orchestra. The experience is impossible to describe — but it’s also impossible to forget.


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