Bell and Denk: What a way to spend a snowy night (music review)

music-joshuabellThe man and his Stradivarius.

When we learned we were getting complimentary tickets for the Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk concert, my wife, herself once second fiddle in the Lane High School orchestra, seemed more than usually excited. “That’s second chair violin” she corrected.

Looking at Bell’s promotional posters at the Paramount Theater, I began to understand her excitement. The guy is drop dead beautiful.

A prodigy, Joshua Bell got his first violin at age 4, played with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14, and recorded his first album at age 18. A web search to find the best violinist in the world doesn’t render any firm conclusion, but Bell’s name is always among the top candidates, and Bell’s own website crowns him a “classical music superstar."

Playing with him was pianist Jeremy Denk, an avid chamber musician, who in 1998 won both the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and received a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Now I haven’t gone to a fiddle concert since I drove my Chevy van to the 1974 World's Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, where the crowd seemed equally divided between bluegrass fans, hippies, and narcotics agents. By contrast, the February 10th Paramount concert was attended by a more serene and well-heeled crowd–- though many of those heels were clad in boots due to the winter weather.

In interviews, Bell comes off as charming and self deprecating. He famously allowed the Washington Post to film him busking during rush hour at a Metro stop with his instrument, the famously stolen “Gibson Stradivarius."

On stage, Bell is more formal than he seems in interviews. Bell and Denk walked out onto the stage, and without a word, they began.

The program included Sonatas from Bach, Greig, Schumann, and Ravel. The Grieg Sonata was so physical that three quarters through Bell’s bow became noticeably frayed, but he snatched the loose horsehair clear during a short piano interlude. The Ravel sonata was the favorite of my musical companions.

After a short intermission, they played Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Minor, Opus 105. This was mostly quiet and introspective, with short exhibitions of virtuoso.
Then came Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. My musician friends liked this last piece the best. I found it difficult to understand but technically brilliant.

Despite the fact that Bell is arguably better known than Denk, they play easily and equally together. The appreciative crowd did not let the record-breaking snows prevent them from almost filling the ever elegant Paramount.

Walking to our downtown home from the concert in the snow was a coda to a warm, comfortable, and relaxed show. Thanks Josh and Jeremy. Thanks Paramount.

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Bell is a brilliant talent, and may well come across as charming and self deprecating, but some who have played with him and know him might think otherwise

It was a great concert -- completely entertaining and musically interesting. I was enthralled.