Violinist Joshua Bell conducted the National Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 11 at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman/Scott Suchman)
We in the classical music field are fond of saying that we wish classical music were more popular — and then tend to come down hard on artists who are actually making it so. Think Lang Lang, think Yo-Yo Ma, think Joshua Bell, the violinist, who has just finished a week-long residency at the Kennedy Center.
When the pianist Lang Lang did a D.C. residency in 2012, hearing him play several times over the course of a few days got me to discard a lot of my prejudices about him and realize the deep and interesting musicianship that underlies the crowd-pleasing persona so many of his critics love to hate. I was hoping for a similar revelation about Bell. After four performances, though, I can’t say I came away with any new insights — though I can reaffirm that he is very musical and makes very beautiful sounds on his violin.
It didn’t help that every one of these concerts hid him, to some extent, behind some other element. On Wednesday, he played along with an elaborate meal, the courses paired to the music, in a collaboration with the Gourmet Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra (my full review of the evening is online). On Saturday, he conducted the NSO in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and then played as soloist in Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” while the usually acclaimed troupe Dance Heginbotham, in brightly colored, one-piece costumes that made them all look awkward, literally upstaged him with the world premiere of a choreography called “Lola” that seemed as if it had wandered into the wrong evening. (You can see for yourself on Medici.tv, which streamed the concert live.)
Violinist Joshua Bell, right, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma interact with students in the D.C. Youth Orchestra program at Bunker Hill Elementary on Feb. 7. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
On Sunday, Bell was the marquee attraction at an NSO children’s concert that featured the world premiere of a co-commissioned piece, “The Man With the Violin” by Anne Dudley, based on a children’s book about the 1997 Washington Post experiment for which Bell played in the D.C. Metro at rush hour. Dudley’s piece was quite good, and hit its mark: My 5-year-old junior critic, at least, stopped wiggling and completely focused on the gentle animation and pretty sounds on stage. But its simple, beguiling solo line was Bell’s only appearance on the hour-long program, after three other orchestral pieces (Prokofiev, Dukas and Ravel, well led and well narrated by Michael Stern).
Why not have Bell — a natural public speaker and a father of young sons, who spent all day Tuesday working with D.C. schoolchildren — talk to the audience, or play more than one piece? As it was, this story about a child’s frustration at not getting to hear more of the violinist was illustrated all too well, for everyone present. (Junior critic’s rating: “medium good.”)
Only on Friday, at his Washington Performing Arts recital with the pianist Sam Haywood, did Bell really take center stage — and even then, John Lithgow came out after intermission to read a poem, linking the event to the Kennedy Center’s ongoing JFK celebration (the poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger, was one of Kennedy’s favorites). The program was as appealing as Bell himself, starting with Beethoven’s early D-major sonata, all light gold and glimmer, and continuing with Brahms’s youthful Sonatensatz in C minor and his late third violin sonata in D minor.
Bell, like Lang Lang, telegraphs his musical intentions clearly, although his bouts of frenetic intensity in the later Brahms piece never fully lost their sense of happiness and light, and he finished each piece with a wonderfully taut finality that contained a little energetic uptick, like a blown kiss. Haywood played with great clarity, a firm support to the singing violin.
The second half contained two singing melodic works and two virtuosic showpieces: Aaron Jay Kernis’s 1995 “Air” for violin and piano in a beautiful reading that made a great case for the work and Rachmaninoff’s famous “Vocalise” on the one hand, Ysayë’s third solo sonata and Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” on the other. I thought some of the passion in the Carmen sounded sloppy, but it was delivered with a great show of fireworks, and the audience was enthusiastic. Still, the whole thing didn’t add up to a meaningful profile of the artist, beyond the not insignificant fact that he is a very good entertainer.
The most interesting thing about the residency was Bell’s conducting of the NSO. Before he arrived, he talked to me about approaching conducting like a chamber-music collaboration, and I was struck by how well this approach worked in practice; faced with a conductor encouraging them to step up and without a firm technique per se, the orchestra was audibly on its toes. Absent any strong vision, however, each movement tended to sag in the middle and lose interest. And of course this isn’t an approach that would work well if you want to conduct things the orchestra doesn’t already know.
But when it comes to giving loving attention to canonical works and the more melodious branches of the contemporary repertoire, and transmitting that love to many of his listeners, Joshua Bell is unparalleled.
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