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At Strathmore, Joshua Bell puts on a trademark, moving performance

By Robert Battey,

Joshua Bell is never dull. The violinist, a welcome annual visitor for the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Celebrity Series, gave a trademark performance Thursday before a packed Strathmore Music Center audience. In a program of Schubert, Franck, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens, he spun his silken lines with care and flair.

Bell has always focused on balancing large and small musical details rather than emoting or wallowing in lush fiddle-playing. You hear not the adipose sounds of a Perlman or Zukerman but rather a fine-grained, detailed musical narrative. Bell doesn’t even noticeably change his sound from one musical era to another — there wasn’t much difference between his Schubert and Prokofiev — but the focus on musical structure and detail is always intriguing. Many great violinists of past generations, including Bell’s teacher Josef Gingold, created a distinctive sound through highly personal use of expressive slides, but this postmodern artist largely eschews such effects.

This is not to suggest he is a “cerebral” player; far from it. Indeed, there is a slight disconnect between his physical performing style and the sounds he makes. Few violinists today yaw and pitch so; only the greatest technical skill allows Bell to throw himself around to the extent he does without adversely affecting his remarkably clean sound. There were some stray intonation problems in the Schubert “Rondo brilliant,” and the vibrato is a bit constricted high up on the G-string. But Bell remains one of the sovereign fiddlers before the public today.

Bell’s pianist, Sam Haywood, is also excellent, although he got lost briefly in the coda of the Saint-Saens “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” and did not always maintain the integrity of the dotted-rhythm opening of the Schubert. But he is, overall, a sensitive artist who fully equals Bell in virtuoso passage work.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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