Classical Music Review: Clear As a Joshua Bell

The recipient of countless honors and awards, the perennially popular Joshua Bell, now 43, can still pass for a 20-something. He’s still slender with the same trademark head of straight, light brown, swinging hair (think Ringo in a shampoo commercial) that he’s always had.

Violinist Joshua Bell — His matinee looks are intact.

Joshua Bell, violin and Sam Haywood, piano. Presented by the Celebrity Series. At Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, February 4.

By Susan Miron

The past two generations of young, big-time concert violinists have shared certain traits—perfect intonation, of course; prestigious instruments (Joshua Bell has a seriously valuable Strad); photogenically good looks; and outgoing personalities. The looks are helpful for the myriad recordings and posters that feature their faces (or gowns). The upbeat personalities are useful for interviews and record signings (one took place following this concert). Being good at playing crossover music is important, especially for CD sales, and Mr. Bell has done a lot of this (he recorded the soundtrack to The Red Violin). Commissioning and performing new pieces is a must. Yes, reader, he’s done that too. Still, if one listens to one of their CDs or hears them on the radio, it’s hard to guess who is who.

The recipient of countless honors and awards, the perennially popular Joshua Bell, now 43, can still pass for a 20-somethng. He’s still slender with the same trademark head of straight, light brown, swinging hair (think Ringo doing a shampoo commercial) that he’s always had. A few years back he was voted one of People Magazine‘s “Fifty Most Beautiful People.” Last night, all in black, he made the same swooping movements and balletic footwork when he played that he always has. Does any other violinist move around this much?

No matter. Mr. Bell played an most unusual, nineteenth-century program and played it very well. His frequent pianist Jeremy Denk was elsewhere; in his place was the excellent British pianist Sam Haywood, who played exquisitely all evening. I had never heard of Mr. Haywood, but he has a new release of “Chopin’s Own Piano” made on Chopin’s own piano that sounds enticing.

Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood: A talented team

Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Opus 100 opened the program. Like the other two Brahms violin sonatas, the A Major is lyrical, inward-looking, and peaceful. This performance, however, was so introverted and quiet that many audience members mentioned that it would have sounded better in Jordan Hall. But Joshua Bell can fill Symphony Hall, so what’s a presenter to do?

Things got—and stayed—much better after the Brahms. The rarely heard but beautiful Franz Schubert Fantasy in C Major D. 934 elicited a beautiful performance. Schubert wrote little for violin. This piece was written for a 21-year-old, Czech virtuoso Josef Slavik, whom Chopin described as “the second Paganini.” Suddenly, the two musicians hit their stride and stayed there the remained of the concert. Schubert often incorporated tunes from his songs into his chamber music, and here he wrote elaborate variations on his “Sei mir gegrüsst!” (I greet you). The demanding piano part was played with great panache, as was the grueling violin part.

The last scheduled piece was another rarely heard piece by a major composer, Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major, Opus 13 by Edvard Grieg. Full of dreaminess and Norwegian melancholy, it was so influenced by Norwegian folk music that Grieg called it his “national” sonata. Although I hadn’t had the pleasure of hearing this piece before, there was enough Grieg-sounding melodies that I probably would have been able to guess the composer.

The audience of course called for more—it was a rather short program—and was treated to three gorgeous encores. The first, Romance by Jean Sibelius, was another familiar composer’s unfamiliar work and unjustifiably so. It was simply gorgeous, as was the very popular violin showpiece Henryk Wieniawski’s “Polonaise Brilliante.” Finally, the two played an arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor (originally for piano solo) with the violin taking the soaring scales with such beauty, one forgot all about show biz and the music biz and was just grateful to the Celebrity Series for bringing these two musicians to Boston.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.


  1. Vince Czyz on February 7, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I saw Joshua Bell perform in the Aya Irini as the Turks call it, the Hagia Irene in Greek, the Church of Saint Irene in English, in Istanbul a few years ago. This is one of the oldest churches in Christendom and predates the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. It is also a much smaller, much more intimate cathedral. It was a mesmerizing performance by an exquisite musician in a space fit for angels coming in out of the rain.

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