SEPTEMBER 18, 2003
Scraping the Stradivarius:
Abravanel Hall Welcomes the Return of Joshua Bell
By Christian Gentry
  Superstar Joshua Bell brought his virtuoso violin playing to Abravanel Hall.

t wasn’t sold out. Now that was a disappointment. Maybe not that much of a disappointment, since I got better seats than usual. Nevertheless, one of the most talented musicians of his age made his third appearance in Salt Lake City and it wasn’t standing-room only.

Joshua Bell first came to Salt Lake City a few years ago as one of the featured artists in the University of Utah’s Virtuoso Series at Libby Gardner Hall. This time, the larger Abravanel Hall was the locale for the wunderkind from the Midwest to strut his Stradivarius stuff.

The concert, conducted by Maestro Keith Lockhart, was the standard fare: a virtuoso concerto sandwiched between an overture and a large symphony. But there was a twist. Instead of playing a single work of technical prowess, Bell opened his appearance with the unassuming Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra, K.261 by Mozart. Although this piece doesn’t by any means display the technical faculty of a violinist through complex double stops, wailing arpeggios and lightning-quick scale passages, it does expose the sensitivity and emotive energy of the performer. The simple melodious phrases were relaxed and languid. It would be easy for a performer of the same caliber as Bell to play the piece in a very pretty way. Yet Bell’s playing adhered to every nuance. From dynamics to phrasing, there wasn’t any detail left uncovered. Although the attention to such details was subtle, it was obvious that Bell isn’t a robotic, technical prodigy, but an emotionally mature artist. Even the cadenza near the end of the piece—where a performer can pull out all of the stops of technique—was done in a tasteful, classical manner.

Max Bruch is rarely known in our time, but was rarely forgotten in his own. Living at the height of romanticism, Bruch composed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor in 1866. Although it was composed in the classical three movement concerto form, the form is more free than strict. It is the quintessential work for the accomplished violinist, ranking among the concertos by Brahms and Mendelssohn. The technical and emotive abilities of Bell were well-exposed in this work.

The work is more like an exotic fantasy than a German concerto. The constant change between the quick, brash splaying of fantastical passages and the upper-register lyricism in the concerto provided Bell with ample opportunity to display why he is Joshua Bell. The concerto’s magical moment came at the transition between the first and second movement. After an incredibly difficult cadenza, Bell came in on the second movement with a soft and sweet sound. When the orchestra entered it was tranquil and quiet, but also intense.

Bell also excelled in the third movement. The recurring gypsy-like theme played over the four strings of the violin exuded exasperating energy and excitement. Bell played a flawless, tireless performance of unmatched skill.

After the dramatic ending of the piece, the audience was in a frenzy. With sweat dripping down his face, Bell exited the stage three times before the audience finally realized that there weren’t going to be any encores.

If opening night at the symphony was any indication of what kind of season is in store, then a sold-out hall might not be too far off the horizon. Then again, Joshua Bell won’t be playing every week.

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