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For whom the Bell tolls

Violinist rings Festival’s chimes
by John French

Fortunately, the Bell tolled magnificently for the sellout audience at the Mount Baker Theatre to hear Joshua Bell completely astound the Bellingham Festival of Music.

To begin with, let me state that I absolutely love Samuel Barber’s music. He is as American as apple pie, barbecue, and the Fourth of July, and, of course, he will be immortalized by his Adagio for Strings if nothing else. Joshua Bell chose his Concerto for Violin, Op. 14, which was written in 1939 in three movements that begins quite simple sounding (it isn’t) and ending in a furious molto perpetuo, which sounds complex (which it is).

Mr. Bell not so much plays the violin as it becomes an extension of his personality. That rarity occasionally happens among top flight musicians where the instrument lives and breathes with its owner in a symbiotic relationship.

Bell strode on stage ready for business from the very first note of the opening movement and held our rapt attention straight through to the thunderous final movement without losing one person in the audience anywhere in between. His playing was crisp, clear, and rhythmically forceful from start to finish. Samuel Barber’s score thoroughly supported Bell’s virtuosity from its classically written roots through the usage of jazz idioms. Maestro Palmer, Mr. Bell and the Festival orchestra were greeted with a roaring and well-deserved standing ovation at the ending of the concerto.

After intermission, Bell picked up right where he left off, playing Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Ravel gave this piece the subtitle “Rhapsodie de Concert.” According to Ed Rutschman “…this belongs to a venerable tradition of Hungarian pieces written by composers who never spoke Hungarian. These include Brahms, Sarasate, and even the Hungarian-born Liszt.” A gypsy piece from start to finish, it begins with the violinist playing a brilliant solo cadenza and ends with an electrifying allegro. Bell and company let the dance fly up to the sparkling pizzicato section that once again brought the MBT audience to its feet.

The concert opened with Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal, Op. 5 (1931). This was Samuel Barber’s first orchestral work, which premiered two years later with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was designed to convey the spirit of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy with all of its whimsy, lyricism and just plain fun. It was a grand way to start the evening.

The concert closed with the Four Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvořák. Under any other circumstances these would have been outstanding, but Joshua Bell had managed to suck all of the oxygen out of the MBT so that they were merely very good.

It was a wonderful night for fans of the violin, American music, and a Frenchman’s take on what’s it like to be a Hungarian gypsy. Joshua Bell’s many acolytes are truly deserved and were well-rewarded tonight. For whom the Bell tolls? It tolls for anyone who is fortunate enough to see this talented young man play the violin as passionately as the late Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra.

Next on the Bellingham Festival of Music schedule is a concert featuring cellist Lynn Harrell on Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m. at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center. Call the WWU box office at (360) 650-6146 or e-mail boxoffice@wwu.edu to order. For more information of the Festival season, see their website.

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