February 11, 2011 at 9:34 AM
I bought a ticket to hear Joshua Bell on January 26, but I didn't go because of the snow. Only about 300 people showed up for the concert, and a complete power outage stopped the performance. The crowd milled around in the dark lobby, where Josh played "Variations on Yankee Doodle Dandy" and gave out autographs.
The concert was rescheduled for the following week, and this time I went. I am so glad that I did, because it was a truly fantastic concert.
The first piece on the program was Brahms Sonata 2 for violin and piano. Even with two master performers, the piece did not move me.
The second piece, Schubert's Fantasy in C Major, was the high point of the scheduled performances for me. I had prepared for the concert by listening to a podcast in which Josh talked about the music he would play, and I was intrigued by what he said about the Schubert. He surprised me by saying that the Schubert piece was more in the Romantic period style than the Brahms. He described Schubert as a great melodist whose works are very tuneful, and I hadn't thought of Schubert in these terms. Josh went on to say that the piano part of the Schubert Fantasy is very difficult to play. The first few notes of the Fantasy swept me away. The piano played shimmering ripples of sound. with a warm, light feeling. I felt as if there was a warm breeze under me, lifting me up and carrying me along. I felt my breathing become slow and deep, in synch with the music. The violin entered so softly that it was barely perceptible, but when the violin played a little louder, its sound was just like that of the piano -- warm and soft. Soon, the sound of the violin was more prominent, and it took off in a true flight of fantasy. There was some technically difficult work in the violin part, which Josh did not mention in his podcast. He played it beautifully and without showing off. He even played a very narrow vibrato. His style was subtle, not shouting, but he still conveyed emotions very strongly. I believe that this accomplishment is is a sign of a great master. I loved this piece so much that I looked for recordings of it on Youtube and amazon.com, but none of them was very good. Most of the pianists played with a clunk-a-clunk-a sound, and none of the violinists could play with the subtle beauty that Josh did. I am so very glad that I heard that performance live.
The last piece on the program was Grieg's Sonata. In the podcast, Josh said that this was the first time he has performed this work in public. He said that he likes to add at least one new piece to his performing repertoire each year to study and improve his musicianship. The music sounded a lot like Norwegian folk music and folk dance music. It was definitely Romantic and even showy at times. Josh let go and showed off with his fiddle. Of course, he played beautifully.
Then came the encores. To everyone's delight, Josh played Wienawski's Polonaise Brilliante. I could see people in the audience move up to the edge of their seats and sit bolt upright to listen. The Wienawski is technically very difficult to play and wonderful to listen to. It has lots of fireworks and great melodies. It was fun to hear Josh play it with superb technical and musical showmanship.
For the last encore, Josh and the pianist played one of Chopin's Nocturnes. I don't know who arranged the piece for violin and piano, but the two instruments complemented each other beautifully. Its mood was gentle but sparkling. It was a happy piece to end the program with.
This concert had a coda. Josh was giving out autographs, and while standing in line I talked to some interesting people. One was a teenage boy carrying a violin case. He was a wunderkind who had started taking Suzuki lessons at age 4 and is now quite accomplished. He told me that he wanted Josh to sign one of the two satin ribbons placed in his case as a bow holder. I asked him about his bow. He is now trying out some of them and favoring a Hill bow. These are in the $4-10K range, so I'm not familiar with them. He is also trying out some violins at a lutherie which carries instruments at $10K and up. He knew a lot about everything related to the violin, and he shared a lot of his knowledge with people standing in line. When we got close to Josh at the autograph table, we saw someone open her violin case and give Josh the instrument to sign with his Sharpie pen. We really wondered about that. When he got near Josh, the virtuoso obviously recognized him. He jumped up and shook hands with great warmth. The two chatted for a little while, and after Josh had autographed his bow holder, he went around to the other side of the table so that his mother could photograph him with Josh, who gave him a big hug. The student's mother asked Josh to autograph her son's practice folder. Josh paused briefly to think and then wrote "May you be happy playing your violin always." I thought that was beautiful. When I got to speak to Josh, I asked him about signing the violin. He shook his head and said "I really didn't want to do it." He signed my program, which I will give to my luthier. I really liked Josh's style. He was very laid back, unpretentious, and warm, especially with fans he knew. He gave us a great ending to a great concert.
What a mensch!
Thanks for the blog, Pauline. I hope I get to see him some time. And thanks also for giving the pianist his due.
I have come to appreciate the piano lately as another wooden string instrument. A good piano can have that same clear ringing quality that the violin has, which adds to my enjoyment.
I found this on youtube where Josh played the yankee doodle in the dark of the 26th jan concert...
Awesome job writing this, Pauline, and thanks for giving us your perspective on this show! Sounds like it was a hit! Glad you finally got to see Joshua's gig!
I didn't know he had a podcast!
Pauline, great blog! Thanks for sharing. I love this kind of recitals... much better than the big concerto concert with orchestra. Regarding the Chopin nocturne, Bell usually plays the C sharp minor transcribed by Nathan Milstein.
Oh, what a wonderful depiction of your impressions, and also of Joshua Bell's playing. So often he is perceived as sounding technically brilliant but a little reserved, chilly. You breathed such humanity into his performance here - it sounds like it was really an extraordinary experience. I'm so glad your unfortunate cancellation of the other concert brought forth such a happy ending!
Thanks for sharing. Reading it all was like a breath of fresh air lifted me up, as well.
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