Music review: Joshua Bell at the Kennedy Center

January 24, 2012

Washington has had a slightly awkward relationship with Joshua Bell ever since that morning five years ago when — in a now-famous social experiment dreamed up by Post columnist Gene Weingarten — the violin superstar spent a morning busking for coins at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, only to be ignored by virtually everyone who passed. Bell, happy to say, took it all in stride, and on Monday night returned to Washington for a more venue-appropriate concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where he showed that — commuter indifference notwithstanding — he’s one of the most imaginative, technically gifted and altogether ­extraordinary violinists of our time.

Bell is in his mid-40s now, but there’s still a sort of elfin quality to his playing. There’s the trademark untucked shirt, the dancing on the balls of the feet, the mop of flying hair. But in a program that ranged from Mendelssohn to Gershwin, it became clear that there’s also an almost effortless freshness in his playing: It sounds utterly spontaneous, while underpinned with a flawless sense of drama and narrative line. Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108, for instance, can sound a bit gelatinous in more ordinary hands, but Bell made it as lucid and weightless as thought, playing (as he did all evening) with an impossibly light touch, evocative tone and pinpoint accuracy — particularly in the closing movement, the Presto agitato, which blew by at something beyond warp speed.

Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F, with which Bell opened the program, brought a warm dose of sweetness to the evening, and a Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes gave Bell room to display his considerable musical charm. More interesting, though, was the austere and technically daunting Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 27, “Ballade,” a work for solo violin by Eugene Ysaye. Bell negotiated its complex passage work and double- and triple-stops with aplomb, in a gripping, deeply felt performance.

To these ears, though, the most perfect moments of the evening came in Ravel’s Sonata in G for Violin and Piano. Accompanied by the very astute pianist Sam Haywood, Bell turned in a ravishing reading, a marvel of evanescent colors, shimmering light and the compelling, elusive beauty of a dream.

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