Friday night Michael and I had the pleasure of seeing acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell at Chicago’s Symphony Center. Bell is touring with pianist Sam Haywood, and the duo brought out a great crowd of adoring fans. From our perch in the first balcony we had a great view of their fingers; I told Michael that as I chose from the remaining tickets, all on the wings, I struggled with “fingers versus face.” While neither performer is bad to look at, I ultimately chose fingers. In the end, the fact that one of the pieces is a true piano extravaganza helped put the fingers side of the equation over the top.
After intermission, Bell took to the microphone for a moment to explain his selection of works for the concert. The timing of the current leg of his tour coincides with what would have been his teacher, Josef Gingold’s, 106th birthday. Bell wanted to honor his teacher by choosing pieces he strongly associates with him. The program followed a somewhat standard – and chronological – Baroque, Classical, then Romantic course.
Bell felt self-conscious (a silly-strong word for a performer of his caliber!) about his choice of the first piece – the Baroque Chaconne for Violin and Keyboard in G Minor, attributed to Vitali. In addition to its origins being in dispute, Bell said that the piece has undergone some revisions over the course of its history that have left it less than pure Baroque. He also mentioned first learning the piece when he was eleven years old.
Despite myself, I had difficulty staying in the moment with the Vitali Chaconne because next up was the piece that caused me to buy tickets – Beethoven’s powerful Sonata No. 9 for violin and piano, the storied Kreutzer Sonata. I’ve blogged before about its fascinating dedication tale, originally named after Beethoven’s friend George Bridgetower then retracted after the two fell out over a shared passion for a woman. The sonata has become one of my favorite works. Bell and Haywood dazzled – the work has one of the most evocative second movements going, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one holding my breath as it meandered around its memorable themes. As far as sonatas go, it definitely sticks to the form, but its impressionistic qualities also come through and the music offers plenty of surprises along the way, with powerful bookends of the distinctive opening bars of the first movement and a quick turn then sprint to the finish finale. The audience, always a seasoned and serious crew at Symphony Center, couldn’t help itself, and provided a rare mid-concert standing ovation as the pair finished the piece.
The final major work of the night was Faure’s Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano in A major. I know little about French music, and it was a treat to hear the Romantic embellishments to a classic sonata form. The sonata is pleasantly melodic, without being overly repetitive. It is also one of the works that secured Faure’s fame – the program notes quote the great Camille Saint-Saens, writing in a prestigious music journal in 1877at the time of its debut, “With a single leap, M. Faure has taken his place alongside the great masters.”
Bell wrapped up the night with three short works – first was Brahms’s Hungarian Dance #1, then came Fritz Kreisler’s stunning and famous Love’s Sorrow. The Kreisler number is especially significant to Bell due to his teacher’s relationship with the legend. Bell’s teacher had a photo of Kreisler on the wall the entire time Bell was learning from him – Bell said he now has that same photo on his own wall at home. The performance concluded with a Tarantella – Wieniawski’s Scherzo-Tarantelle, Op.16. Bell claimed not to have spent much time on the Wieniawski since 1991, when he played it on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He enjoyed recounting the story of that show, during which he had a catastrophic string malfunction through which he simply had to play. Bell also had to remind some in the audience of who Johnny Carson was – it turns out there might actually be a few patrons at Symphony Center who have yet to deal with their first grays!
I can’t end this write-up without a nod to Bell’s phenomenal instrument – what a joy it was to see and hear the Huberman Stradivarius on a stage as perfect as Chicago’s Symphony Center. The incredible story of the violin is legend. I strongly suspect that one day it will be more commonly referred to as the ex-Bell.
Thanks for reading.