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Joshua Bell Performance Review - The Poet of the Violin

By Bette Kiernan

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My friend and I attended the Stanford Live performance at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, which featured a program of Joshua Bell, violin, and Sam Haywood, piano. The magnificent Bing Concert Hall housed this amazing concert.

 

Stanford Live's Executive Director Wiley Hausam chatted with my friend and me in the lobby immediately following the performance. I was excited, aglow, from the profoundly powerful experience of hearing Joshua Bell passionately playing his famed Stradivarius violin. The instrument had once been stolen from renowned violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The violin has become the core of a significant cultural legend: Huberman helped Jewish musicians escape the holocaust to come to Palestine for his newly forming orchestra.

 

Although Huberman never saw the violin again in his lifetime, the story eventually came to a marvelous ending when critically acclaimed Joshua Bell performed with the special instrument in Israel. The very land where Huberman had created the essential container for talented musical expression was richly blessed by Bell’s performance.

 

Wiley said the star musician was late and nearly missed the scheduled opening because his flight was impacted by the storms over California. The plane apparently was already in the landing phase when it was forced to take off again.

It was incomprehensible that Joshua Bell who offered such a dynamic brilliant performance, marked by his charismatic mastery of stage and technically challenging music, had just emerged from trying travel difficulties!

 

Known as the “poet of the violin”, Bell’s musical prowess showed at age four when he plucked tunes with rubber bands he stretched around dresser drawer handles. He made his orchestral debut at fourteen with the Philadelphia Orchestra-the orchestra’s youngest soloist ever.  When he was music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, he first toured the United States.

 

His musical performance partner, British pianist Sam Haywood, also plays to the critical acclaim of critics throughout the world. Haywood’s other interests that include magic, literature and the Lake District, seemed to shine through in his playing the Tartini dream peace, the Fairy’s Kiss, and the bucolic sounds of the Beethoven Sonata: All have themes that portray the powerful light and dark sides often expressed in literature and nature.

 

The program began with The Sonata in G Minor for Violin, The Devil’s Trill written by Giuseppe Tartini around 1745. Tartini shared his special dream with French Astronomer Joseph Lalande. In the dream, the Devil played a violin sonata that was so powerful that the composer, had to gasp for breath. As Tartini described the dream, “One night I dreamt that I made a pact with the Devil, he was my servant and anticipated my every wish”.  “The piece that I then composed is without doubt my best, and I still call it The Devil’s Sonata, but it still falls so short of the one that stunned me that I would have smashed my violin and given up music forever if I could have but possessed it”. In his era, violinists were considered “demonic” so the story of his nighttime encounter with the devil may well have also included a marketing strategy that enhanced his already well-deserved reputation as masterfully talented violinist!

 

As Poet of the Violin Bell began to play The Devil’s Trill, the sensation produced was so compelling as to defy description.  Rather, my inner poet responded with imagery to match the mighty emotional experience. The sound emanating from the Stradivarius was as if the darkest richest loveliest chocolate was somehow entering my ears. Like the Devil himself, the musical tones transcended ordinary boundaries by rapidly rising from the lower depths to suddenly perch upon a high plane. The frequent and rapidly played trills that characterize the piece add intense melodic, rhythmic and dissonant interest to the powerful work.

 

The most fascinating aspect of Tartini’s masterful work is that the parts of the Sonata mirror an actual dream experience. In the same way that a dream characteristically suddenly shifts scenes to produce a different energetic experience, the music did the same. Tartini created a meta-music to give the listener the immediacy of an actual otherworldly dream encounter.

 

Bell next graced the program with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 10 in G Major, Opus 96 from 1812. The piece is in sharpest contrast to the preceding Devil’s Trill. Where Tartini whipped the emotions of the listener with alternating plaintive, and then shrill aggressive tones in discordant rhythms, Beethoven soothed, calmed and comforted the audience bathing them in the gentle, rhythmic tones from nature’s own music. Magical sounds evoke imagery of birdcalls, gentle breezes in a wooded glen, and slow moving streams that emerge from the melodic music and combine to offer serenity and restoration to frazzled spirits. His rendition offers nurturance for the soul. If the poet speaks for every man, Joshua Bell, through his mighty musical gifts, offers a lyrical poem, which in turn evokes the inner bard for fortunate listeners.

 

The Fairy’s Kiss, Divertimento for Violin and Piano by Igor Stravinsky from around 1930 tells a tale from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ice Maiden.

 

The story revolves around an unlucky mortal whom the fairy's minions steal from his mother as a baby. The fairy bestows her kiss on him and returns in disguise when he is celebrating his engagement to his fiancée at a village festival. There she tricks the young man into declaring his love for her and then spirits him away to her realm "beyond time and place," kissing him once again "to the sound of her lullaby."

 

The tale is told in loving lullaby that takes an aggressive turn in the determined stance of one set to get her way. The toes of the fairy are heard dancing in and out as she hides, scampers, sings, longs, and finally gets the young man as her own. The haunting melodic otherworldly tones played again and again through my mind long after the performance ended.

 

Violinist Bell and Pianist Sam Haywood display their often-acclaimed heights of achievement in this work.  As if they are jointly co-weaving a musical textile of the finest cashmeres, silks and wools,  an intricately designed lyrical masterpiece emerges. Each musical note one offers the other, enhances and builds the pattern, thus compelling the listener to awe at the profound beauty of the masterpiece the virtuosos create together.

 

The spectacular performance was enhanced even more by the superlative esthetics and outstanding acoustics of Bing Concert Hall. Bing Concert Hall is designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects. From the elegant lobby to the intimate atmosphere of vineyard arranged 842 seats that ring the stage-the experience was a once in a lifetime musical joy.

Bing Concert Hall

327 Lasuen Street
Stanford, CA 94025
(650) 724-2464

website

 

Bing Concert Hall photos: Jeff Goldberg/Esto for Ennead Architects

Bette Kiernen is a Psychotherapist in Private Practice  Palo Alto, California

 

 

 

Published on Feb 10, 2014

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