The auspicious title of "living legend" is rarely given in any field, but even more rare is to hear such propitious nomenclature bestowed upon an artist in the competitive and richly historical world of classical music. It has been given unofficially to only a handful of artists. To hear one of these marvels perform live is, for some, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Violinist Joshua Bell (incidentally, an "official" living legend as determined by the governor of Indiana) gave this chance to the enthusiastic throng that gathered at the Belk Theatre. Just as an older generation fervently reminisces about hearing the devilish virtuosity of Jascha Heifetz or the expressive tone of Fritz Kreisler, so too will the progeny of those present in Charlotte hear of Bell's mesmerizing flair and engaging stage presence!
As the lights in the standing-room-only theatre dimmed, the mood was electric. Bell and his accompanist, pianist Jeremy Denk, stepped on the stage to the sound of 2,100 strong roaring in a sort of pre-approval. I daresay there was such a fever pitch that had he opened with "Three Blind Mice" it would have been sufficient for a standing ovation. Thankfully, he did not. He chose instead Robert Schumann's Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105, for violin and piano. It is evident that this work was written at about the time when Schumann began his downward spiral into insanity. The sharp variances in tone and color represent the work of a convoluted mind trying to hold on to some semblance of reality. The piece is ultimately romantic, though, and Bell is at his finest in that genre. His $1.3 million Stradivarius sang from the time bow touched string with a propensity of emotion that brought one into state of empathy for the pitiful composer. Denk, too, accompanied with exceptional poise and grace, pouncing when necessary while still showing the restraint of a modest accompanist. Bell is quick to share the limelight, though, as he did in the final movement, where the instruments diverged to create tension, but a tension with equivalence.
Beethoven provided the centerpiece for the afternoon with his Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, for piano and violin. The comprehensive program notes describe the composer's works as such: "Beethoven wrote ten sonatas for piano and violin. In all of them he treats the two instruments with equal importance." This is a crucial element in understanding the piece, one that the performers understood quite well. At intermission, the buzz was that the pianist was "heavy-handed" and there was consternation that Bell was not always at the forefront. The fact is that the two were on point when it came to proper performance practice and, in being such, they turned in a reading that teemed with passion and plasticity. The interplay between the two in conversational passages was almost operatic in nature as both sang from their respective instruments. The second movement felt a little anachronistic, though, as Bell's overtly lush romantic nature made it sound more like Rachmaninov than Beethoven. It melted the heart nonetheless.
Cellist Edgar Meyer, one of Bell's close friends, composed the opening piece of the second half, Concert Piece for Violin and Piano. It might well have been called "Four Short Pieces for Violin and Piano," as there appears to be no prevailing theme throughout the work. It seems be more of a survey of musical styles, from serious classical to bluegrass to jazz and beyond. While it had its moments, including a barnburner of a final movement, it was sporadic and dull overall. Bell and Denk were both brilliant technically, but it wasn't enough to put a shine on the lackluster piece.
This marked the end of the printed program, but Bell was slated to continue with selections from his most recent album, "The Voice of the Violin." This CD is a collection of vocal works that he transcribed for solo violin or for violin and piano. One such work is the 'oft-heard "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninov. Bell's announcement that he would be playing this drew gasps from the audience. Here Bell was at the top of his game. From four strings and a bow emerged a voice that sang as remarkably as the greatest soprano. It was the highlight of the recital.
After a romantic little dance tune called "Estrelitta" by Manuel Ponce came the grand finale, in which Bell caught fire and showed that he was a complete enough violinist to be mentioned with the virtuosi of old. The Introduction and Tarantella, Op. 43, by Pablo de Sarasate, was the piece Bell chose to end with, and it brought down the house. He played with such intensity and speed that I thought to myself, "If he plays any harder, a spark will ignite and we will see that million-dollar violin burn on the stage before us." Well, the fire was certainly there, but luckily it was of the metaphorical persuasion, and it inspired the audience to erupt for several minutes of applause. There were understandably no encores — what could possibly follow that? This will certainly be one to remember.