Review: Joshua Bell performs brilliant concert at Memorial Hall

Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell, a Grammy winner, will return to the Constella Festival on Thursday in Memorial Hall. / Provided

It was not surprising that violin virtuoso Joshua Bell would perform a thoughtful, demanding and ultimately brilliant recital in his return to Cincinnati’s Constella Festival on Thursday night. What did surprise, though, was that he did it on very little sleep, having flown in the previous day from China.

Bell, 45, told the Memorial Hall audience that Constella founder Tatiana Berman had persuaded the Indiana-born star to perform here on his only free day before launching a tour that will take him to Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday.

Chalk it up to Bell’s gracious Midwestern upbringing, but Cincinnati was the beneficiary of an extraordinary evening of inspired music making by one of the great violinists of our time. Bell declared Memorial Hall “one of the nicest places to play,” thanked the audience for braving traffic jams that delayed the concert a half-hour and then quipped, “What time is it?” before launching into two heart-melting encores that had listeners on their feet for a third time.

Bell and his collaborator, British pianist Sam Haywood, opened with the “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” the most famous piece by Baroque violinist Giuseppe Tartini. Its technical demands, such as double-stop trills, are legendary.

But in Bell’s hands, this was more than just a showpiece; it was a display of stunning control, lightness and attention to period style. It was impressive how much emotion the violinist could convey without using vibrato (vibrating tone). He knew just how to build excitement, delivering an effortless display of violin fireworks at the end.

As the duo played, Bell often turned to communicate with Haywood, a sensitive partner who echoed the Baroque style at the piano.

Their playing of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 in G could only be described as transcendent. Haywood’s light touch at the keyboard was a fine complement to Bell’s refined sound. Each was adept at allowing the other to shine, knowing just when to pull back or push ahead, and every phrase had something interesting to say.

The tone that Bell projected on his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius was sublime, especially in lyrical moments. What a joy it was to hear Beethoven played like this: elevated, pure and without any trace of ego.

The second half was devoted to Stravinsky’s Divertimento, based on his ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss.” The scenario is Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Ice Maiden.” Although “neo-classical,” the music takes its cue from the ballets of Tchaikovsky.

The ballet’s magical scenes were vivid with expression, and the duo traded treacherous feats with split-second precision. Bell’s playing was both virtuosic and engaging, and best of all, he seemed to be having fun.

Two encores held the audience rapt. Tchaikovsky’s “Mèlodie” was a fine vehicle for Bell’s sumptuous violin tone, and seemed to come straight from the heart. Wieniawski’s “Polonaise Brilliante,” a tour-de-force of effortless virtuosity, was delivered in the grand, old world tradition.

There was other star power in the hall for the Constella Festival finale. Louis Langrée stood to enthusiastic applause, a day before taking his first bow as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Written by
Janelle Gelfand