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Joshua Bell @ Strathmore

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French Impressions (Franck, Saint-Saëns, Ravel)
Joshua Bell is a regular on the Washington Performing Arts Society season, a big name that fills a big hall. The American violinist, one of the few classical musicians whom most people would recognize by name -- if not by sight, at least not in a baseball cap at L'Enfant Plaza -- was just here in January, at the Kennedy Center. He was back with another program on Thursday night, this time in the Music Center at Strathmore, once again with pianist Sam Haywood. Not surprisingly, he stuck to the Romantic music that is his bread and butter, the music that spotlights his uncanny ability to draw forth a sweet, glowing tone from his 1713 Stradivarius violin, the Gibson ex-Huberman.

This was certainly true of the two major works at the heart of this concert. Few violinists play Franck's A major violin sonata like Bell, with such radiance in the soft passages and a mercurial sense of rubato. He took the final movement at quite a clip, and Haywood, who is a sensitive partner at the piano (if not all that strikingly individual a player), did a fine job of staying with him. Although Prokofiev's second violin sonata (D major, op. 94bis, originally composed for the flute) was composed in the 1940s, it paired quite naturally with the Franck, especially the way that Bell played it, emphasizing its blithe and limpid qualities, as in the main theme of the first movement. Bell gave the second movement, taken very fast, some folksy rhythmic verve and bluesy touches, and a suave softness in the third, but the fourth movement lacked the fortissimo zing it needed, something like what the stronger arm of a Vadim Repin provides, to give the grotesquerie an uglier edge.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, At Strathmore, Joshua Bell puts on a trademark, moving performance (Washington Post, November 3)

David Patrick Stearns, Orchestra rises to music of the Americas (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 28)

Ivan Hewett, Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Joshua Bell, Cadogan Hall (The Telegraph, October 19)
Least successful was Schubert's Rondo Brillant in B Minor, which headed the program. This is a composer one does not associate with Bell (he has recorded at least one short piece, the Serenade), although there was much free and rhapsodic playing from both musicians. The fast sections sounded a little helter-skelter in terms of ensemble alignment, which brought to mind just how packed Bell's schedule is these days, since having added the directorship of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to his already busy life. The unannounced last part of the program served also as encores, with Bell padding out the 19th-century part of the concert by playing Tchaikovsky's Melody and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A Minor, op. 28, by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The next concert presented by WPAS will feature pianist Lukáš Vondráček (December 1, 2 pm), at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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