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Joshua Bell’s Artistry Needs No Concert Stage to Impress

October 12, 2020

Thirteen years ago, in a memorable act of musical guerilla theater, violinist Joshua Bell donned a T-shirt and baseball cap to busk, incognito, in a Washington, D.C., subway station. According to an account of that 2007 gambit in The Washington Post, more than 1,000 people passed the world-class musician without pausing in the 45 minutes he performed. Exactly seven people stopped for at least a minute to listen. Passersby tossed a total of $32 Bell’s way. The event is captured in a widely viewed YouTube video.

Much was made of the incident. Is context more important than content? Do we only listen when the music has been certified and branded in a concert hall? Is there art of all sorts around us all the time that we hurry by without noticing?

Now that pandemic has rewired our musical lives, Bell’s public experiment is a distant memory. Yet once again, on very different terms, this superlative artist is making us think about how and where and why music happens. In Joshua Bell At Home with Music (Live), on Sony Classical, the fiddler impresario assembles a group of fellow musicians to create the atmosphere and intimacy of a salon. Think of it as COVID-era Schubertiade, only without any Schubert. It’s an invitation to pull in close and feel the breathing life of people making music together in a small, confined space.

Bell at Home is a multiplatform enterprise. It aired as a PBS special in August and remains available as a premium video download. The digital audio recording offers the eight numbers from the program, ranging from the very familiar (“Summertime” and a West Side Story medley) to such lesser-knowns as the Mendelssohn’s concert aria “Ah, ritorna, età dell'oro” (from Infelice) and a flashy Polonaise de Concert by the 19th-century Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski. Bell’s musical list of accomplices features his wife, soprano Larisa Martínez, pianists Jeremy Denk and Peter Dugan, and pianist Kamal Khan.

The musical highlight of the album comes first, in a vivid account of the opening Allegro from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5. Bell and Denk engage each other in a dynamic dialogue. It begins in a spry, lithe mode that leads to jointly poised rubatos and a probing development section. The composer’s powers of invention are on full display, in a performance at once taut and expansive, limber, and combustive.

Bell is front and center on the two most colorful cuts of the album. He digs into Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B Minor, in a Fritz Kreisler arrangement, with the folk-tune flavors at full strength. Peter Dugan is his lively keyboard partner. Bell’s sly attacks, athletic phrasing, emphatic accents, and lofty harmonics squeeze everything there is from Wieniawski’s showy entertainment.

In a more contemplative vein, both Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the Chopin Nocturne (Op. 9, No. 2) summon Bell’s singing tone and flawless intonation, with the piano ceding the treble melody to the violin. Both pieces get some mild improvisations that mark these performances as both lucid readings of and thoughtful meditations on well-known works.

The recording takes a step back when it comes to the vocal numbers. Martinez, discretely backed by Khan, does her best work in a firm-voiced yet delicate account of the Mendelssohn aria. The result is sensual and affecting. In Musetta’s aria from La Bohème, by contrast, the soprano lacks the requisite tartness and insouciance.

The album ends on a downdraft, with a largely perfunctory West Side Story medley. Whether it’s “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” or “Somewhere,” Martinez never fully inhabits the character and urgency of the material. Yes, it’s difficult to make an impression in excerpts rather than the full song. But as the longest selection on the album, there’s a lot of musical investment here for not much of a payoff.

Like any disparate collection, there are bound to be hits and misses. Generous as Bell is in deferring to his guests, the best part of Bell at Home is Bell himself. In this case, he’s the host with the most.

CORRECTION: Kamal Khan is a pianist. He was identified as a singer in the story as originally published.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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