Milwaukee’s recent brazen Stradivarius violin heist—and subsequent recovery—has garnered a good deal of media attention, including a front-page story in Friday’s (Feb. 7) New York Times. That same evening, another storied Stradivarius with an equally crime-tinged history made an appearance at downtown San Diego’s Balboa Theatre played by Joshua Bell.
This was not the first time Bell has appeared in recital courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society; the popular violinist also performed with the San Diego Symphony last May in preparation for joining the Symphony on its China tour in November 2013, including a concert at Shanghai’s Oriental Art Center.
Bell easily filled the Balboa, and the avid crowd responded warmly to his recital with pianist Sam Haywood. Sailing through his virtuoso repertory with unruffled assurance, the trim 46-year-old violinist appeared to be at the top of his artistic form. But audience members who expected major showboating probably felt shortchanged at the end of his hour and three quarters recital. With the exception of Henryk Wieniawski’s flashy “Polonaise Brilliante,” Bell’s second encore, his understated selections offered more intellectual reward than visceral thrills.
Beethoven’s G Major Violin Sonata, Op. 96, for example, suggested an extended coffee house conversation between two animated graduate students, with Bell and Haywood volleying clever ideas back and forth. A felicitous opportunity for Haywood to display his pellucid keyboard technique and Bell his silvery, legato line, this quirky sonata skirted the monumental in favor of the exuberant and humorous, dispositions gracefully communicated by this duo.
At least Igor Stravinsky’s “Divertimento,” arranged by the composer from his large-scale ballet The Fairy’s Kiss,
brought some welcome dramatic tension into the equation, although Stravinsky’s cool neo-classical aesthetic did not stoke these fires too ardently. The duo easily subdued the challenges of the opening movement’s torrid contrapuntal forays and rugged, signature rhythmic iterations. They flitted through the Scherzo with fleet, wry determination and were not too proud to suggest a hint of salon music sentimentality in the Adagio, a knowing bow to all of those ripe Tchaikovsky themes Stravinsky borrowed for his 1927 ballet.
Although Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G Minor—better known by its nickname “Devil’s Trill”—gained its reputation for the difficulties of its trill-encrusted final movement, Bell’s immaculate technique dissolved every hint of struggle into a mellifluous buzz. Haywood articulated the continuo accompaniment with utter transparency.[php snippet=1]
Bell’s only indulgence was his first encore, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s familiar “Vocalise” transcribed for violin and piano. But even a purist would be hard-pressed to deny his fans the opporunity to bask in the sonic luster of Bell’s sumptuous middle range and to savor the characteristic Russian longing that this piece embodies to such perfection.