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Joshua Bell heats up the Bowl

The violinist revisits -- and revs up -- Bruch's Concerto No. 1 on a

July 11, 2009|Richard S. Ginell

In 2007, superstar violinist Joshua Bell made some news by agreeing to an endearing little stunt now immortalized on YouTube. He set up shop in a Washington, D.C., Metro station with case open and played, just to see if anyone would notice that a world-class fiddler -- as opposed to your average everyday busker -- was serenading them.

Hardly anyone did. That says more about the hurried, harried American lifestyle and the marginalization of classical music in our culture than anything about Bell's abilities. Indeed, if people didn't stop for Bell -- who is not exactly a shrinking violet, whether onstage or on a subway floor -- they probably wouldn't notice anyone, even if Paganini himself somehow materialized on the platform.

Inevitably, these thoughts came streaming by as Bell bore down on the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday night -- with the young Ukrainian-born guest conductor Kirill Karabits and the L.A. Philharmonic in massively textured support.

Bell and Bruch go way back together; his first album for Decca at the tender age of 19 contained the Bruch, and the recording holds up rather well today (as does Bell, whose physical features at 41 have hardly changed at all). However, Bell's Bruch has become, if anything, more superheated. Certain phrases in the first movement were now more drawn out or lunged at; others in the slow movement were italicized and double-underlined. The finale, which he played faster than before, got wilder with each pass of the themes.

It's OK to be impassioned in trying to put the music over -- especially in a vast concrete amphitheater. But Bell sometimes overdoes it, though on this occasion, not to the extent as he has in other recent appearances. He followed up with his arrangement of Vieuxtemps' razzle-dazzle solo fantasia on the humble theme of "Yankee Doodle": "Souvenir d'Amerique."

Elsewhere in an evening resolutely rooted in 19th century favorites, Karabits demonstrated a good command of a flowing lyric line and careful control of the rollicking portions of Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture. His Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphony was spot-on comfortable in tempo and rhythmic resiliency, and the Philharmonic strings and winds negotiated the swiftest passages with greater security outdoors than they did in a more frantic rendition with Pablo Heras-Casado indoors in March.

In all, a decent classical night at the Bowl, if somewhat short in running time.


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