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The sound of Bell

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Joshua Bell
Robinson Center Music Hall
March 26

I know little to nothing about classical music. I'm not willfully ignorant, just unschooled and inexperienced. The austerity of the symphony might be an impediment for me. Members of the orchestra play with such comport. The conductor, obviously, whisks his arms around, but in highly measured movements. At least at the ASO, if you get up to go to the restroom, you can't sit down until a break between movements (and a movement isn't the equivalent of a song). Audience members hold coughs and sneezes until breaks. This is polite music.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But as Joshua Bell proved on Wednesday night, performance is more than just playing the notes. Dressed comfortably in black pants and an untucked black shirt with several buttons undone, Bell strode onstage after intermission and stood between the conductor and the violins. He was entirely arresting. Through Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, he played like a man possessed, practically willing notes from his instrument, twisting and turning and tossing his head around, almost like he was dancing with his nearly 300-year-old violin. You would dance too if you had a Stradivarius and you could make it talk like Bell does.

For much of the first movement, he played terrifically fast, pumping his arm with furor of a boxer working the speed bag. His long hair flopped all over the place and quickly dripped with sweat. Later, after he tempered his pace and then took a brief break to let the symphony's playing take center stage, he turned and nodded approvingly.

At the end of the concerto, the audience, which had not just refrained from coughing or sneezing during Bell's performance, but also seemed to be collectively holding its breath, let out a roar and gave a long standing ovation. Bell and conductor David Itkin returned for an encore, a short, quiet arrangement of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce's charming “Estrellita” (“Little Star”). The audience response was so strong that Bell added a second encore, a section of the score from the movie “The Red Violin.”

If Bell had stayed seated and rigid through the performance, his ability to charm out nuanced tones rarely heard so clear and strong would've made the performance hugely compelling, but that skill teamed with such expressiveness and energy pushed it to another rarely seen level.

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