Joshua Bell: The Fast and the Furious

Bell, at the top of his game, got a standing ovation.
Bell, at the top of his game, got a standing ovation. (2004 Photo From The Kennedy Center)
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By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

This time they applauded.

After busy Washingtonians were depicted (in a Post Magazine article last year) rushing by and ignoring world-famous violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who was busking in the L'Enfant Plaza subway station, a capacity crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall rose as one, cheering at the stunning conclusion of Bell's recital Monday evening. Even before he finished his encores, a substantial line had already formed at the autograph table. (Seemed to be mostly female.)

Bell, 40, was at the top of his considerable game. He has synthesized a unique postmodern style on the instrument. It contains bowing subtleties characteristic of baroque specialists, adds the nonchalant flair of bluegrass and other nontraditional flavors, gives a nod to brainy iconoclasts like Gidon Kremer, and throws in some Jascha Heifetz wizardry whenever the mood strikes.

The result is not necessarily what everyone expects out of a violin. Bell uses a relatively limited tonal palette; the sound is voltaic and tight rather than sensuous. The rich, sonorous violin tone many of us grew up on (from Stern, Oistrakh, Szeryng and Bell's own teacher, Gingold) is completely absent from his playing. In its stead is something more ephemeral, elusive. He makes us listen harder. But his preternatural coordination remains a thing of wonder. He made child's play of the most fearsome passage-work; every note, no matter how fast, glistened.

Traversing works by Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Prokofiev and Tartini, Bell and his superb pianist Jeremy Denk sculpted one trim phrase after another; the Larghetto from Dvorak's Four Romantic Pieces was an object lesson in how to subtly vary repetitive material. They made the saccharine Adagio of Saint-Saens's D Minor Sonata sound like great music, and the finale whizzed by at Mach 4 -- no violinist today can match such speed and clarity. At its last blistering peroration, like a tennis player making an impossible shot to win the match, Bell whirled triumphantly away in a half-turn, bringing down the house.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company