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If there ever was a Hoosier who could possibly replace basketball legends as its most famous native son, it would have to be violinist Joshua Bell. Born and raised in Bloomington as well as having attended Indiana University, Bell is at the rarified summit of classical artists who can play with anyone of any genre that they choose and command nearly anything he wants. Even James Moeser, Chancellor Emeritus of UNC, in introducing Bell at Carolina Performing Arts' Memorial Hall resorted to the cliché of Bell as a “classical music rock star.”
The show was a sellout and the occasion was one of those that surpasses the obvious musical import and elevates to a cultural event. Even with that, there was some rumbling among the masses before the start, some voicing their opinions as obnoxiously as some political radio shows. What was the problem? There were some significant program changes, including the removal of major works by both Richard Strauss and Dvořák, replaced by the Franck Violin Sonata in A. Yes, life is just one major disappointment after another.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the opening work – Franz Schubert’s Rondo for violin and piano in B minor – served as one of the bookends of Rondos that would comprise this performance. It is an infrequently programmed work that is a perfect vehicle for Bell’s sensitive phrasing and ability to make even the most elementary melodies seem rapturous and deeply meaningful. Partnering with Bell was the youthful British pianist Sam Haywood. You can tell just by Bell’s demeanor, plus of course the virtuosic piano parts and exquisite playing, that Haywood was not to be cast in the role of “mere accompanist” to the superstar. There was not just musical camaraderie, but one could also feel a definite personal bond and respect of the artists for each other. But, there was one body on the stage missing that is often considered by many keyboard players to be the bane of their existence: the page turner. Haywood was reading his part from an iPad and controlling page turns via Bluetooth. For fans of the Borromeo String Quartet, this is old news, although this is the first time that I, and apparently many others, have seen a keyboard player use this technology.
Next up was the very popular Violin Sonata in A by César Franck. As if the brilliance of this work is not sufficient in itself, its story is almost as good. Franck’s only violin sonata, it was written in 1886 for Eugène Ysaÿe, presented to the great violinist on the morning of his wedding, hurriedly rehearsed with a guest and premiered at the wedding! The work employs a cyclic form, meaning that motives and themes are shared across movements – a technique championed by Liszt. Bell and Haywood wrung all the unabashed French beauty from this piece, especially the third movement Recitative-Fantasia which seemed to have the audience transfixed and even breathing with the players. The final movement, studied in nearly every music history class, has a famous canonic interplay between violin and piano. This surely should have satisfied those mourning the deletion of previously programmed works: it was a stunning collaboration of two great musicians and a re-awakening of a somewhat overplayed piece.
It is perhaps a slap in the face to flutists who want to claim one of Prokofiev’s greatest sonatas as solely their own, that the composer chose to re-arrange it for violin. His Opus 94, written in 1942 for flute and piano, was adapted the following year at the request of violinist David Oistrakh. This is a sprawling, emotionally charged work that is reminiscent of – and could easily be dropped into the middle of – the composer’s score to Romeo and Juliet. Not that he really needed any warming up, but both Bell and Haywood seemed especially attuned and transformed by the wild swings of the characteristics of this score. Bell has a passionate and physical presence that underscores the meaning of the music without being ostentatious. Even his prodigious technique is compact and contained, and he produces mesmerizing sonorities with relatively subtle vibrato movements. It also helps that he plays a 1713 Huberman Stradivarius.
The two encores were a perfect split between the achingly lyrical and the ridiculously virtuosic. First was the lovely "Mélodie" by Tchaikovsky. This seemingly simple work was played with such profundity and beauty that I actually saw some people crying. It was said that at his prime Lawrence Olivier’s readings were so beautiful that you could listen to him read the telephone book. Well, I think most people after hearing this work would gladly listen to Joshua Bell play a C major scale. As mentioned before, the other end of the Rondo bookend, and the finale for the evening, was a rather lengthy piece for an encore: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Bell said that this work has somewhat gone out of favor, but I can’t imagine why. A slow, bubbling intro leads into a set of increasingly more virtuosic episodes between the Rondo theme until you feel like you can’t believe what you are hearing. Haywood and Bell hugged each other and genuinely looked like they had a total blast. What must that feel like to possess such mastery?