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What separates the superstars from the merely great classical musicians? Swaying. Itzhak Perlman sways. Yo-Yo Ma sways—-even more impressive, considering his instrument, the cello, requires him to be seated. And Joshua Bell, currently the most renowned violinist in the world, sways a lot.
Bell is undoubtedly an excellent musician, but that isn’t the point. Once you reach a certain level—-record deals, solo tours—-you’re good enough. You can play any piece. You don’t make mistakes. The average person, even a serious classical fan, can’t tell the difference between you and the next Julliard-trained prodigy with their eyes closed.
What separates Bell from the rest of the pack is that in addition to being good at his instrument, he’s a master showman. To see him perform is to watch a spectacle, a man who appears to meld with the music as he plays it. His whole body moves with the bow: crouching before a crescendo, then pouncing on it, swooping to his tiptoes on the upstrokes. It’s all very impressive. It’s also unnecessary. Or about as necessary as when heavy metal guitarists do that giant circle thing with their arm on big riffs.
Bell has been something of a local celebrity too, since helping Gene Weingarten at The Washington Post pull off a clever prank in which Bell performed anonymously as a busker at L’Enfant Plaza metro and cameras watched how many people stopped to listen (answer: 7). The stunt was, as others later complained, prepped from the start to prove Weingarten’s point that Washingtonians are philistines. (It was done during morning rush hour, when people are more rushed, rather than the evening.) And it displayed a dubious and elitist assumption about what people should objectively recognize as fine art: Would most people stop for a Matthew Barney three-hour performance art piece in the metro? But at the very least it cemented Bell’s reputation as a good sport. Which he proved again last week when his originally scheduled concert at Strathmore was canceled due to a power outage, and he mollified frustrated ticketholders with an impromptu interpretation of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in the lobby.
Bell returned to Strathmore on Wednesday for the rain date, paired with pianist Sam Haywood for a surprisingly not sold out show put on by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Bell strode onstage in characteristically casual dress: an untucked black shirt and no jacket, closed his eyes, and jumped right into the first piece, Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. Brahms is usually soft; this sonata was more lively, and had an extended pizzicato sequence—-plucking is what unified the three regular program pieces. However it was Schubert’s Fantasy in C major that showed off Bell’s skills. It’s a pretty and extremely difficult work to play, full of broken chords and other hurdles on top of Schubert’s unorthodox song structure. The last regular program piece, a Norwegian folk-inspired sonata by Grieg, was an interesting programming choice. The composer is far better known for his piano concerto in A, so much so that Strathmore is for some reason putting on two separate performances of it in March. The Grieg sonata fell a bit flat, even with a few scratched notes. But Bell gave an extended encore of Sibelius’ “Romance,” Wieniawski’s “Polonaise Brillante,” and Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, all from memory, and brought the crowd to its feet.
As for Haywood, he was…OK, I guess. Honestly, Bell could have been accompanied by an iPod and most people wouldn’t have noticed. This is more of a testament to Bell’s star power than Haywood’s talent, which I’m sure would be apparent to all if anyone were not paying attention to Bell the whole time. But few would turn down the opportunity to be outshined by one of the few classical artists to have certified name, if not metro, recognition.