joshua bell

Joshua Bell, Superstar/Photo by Chris Lee

By James McQuillen

The Oregon Symphony’s current subscription season includes among its guest soloists half a dozen violinists, some of them little-known to Portland audiences: Elina Vähälä, Karen Gomyo, Stefan Jackiw. Others are bona fide celebrities with at least some name recognition among the general public: Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg. One, Joshua Bell, is a superstar. What’s the difference, and what difference does it make?

Bell is undeniably among the greatest violinists playing today, as he has demonstrated in several appearances with the Oregon Symphony, most recently in finely focused performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto (you’ll have another chance to hear him soon, as he opens the Oregon Bach Festival with the Mendelssohn Concerto June 29 in Eugene and June 30 in Portland). His tone is beautiful and beautifully controlled, and his interpretations persuasive; his impeccable technique and sense of detail make him an ideal collaborator for OSO music director Carlos Kalmar.

Playing brilliantly in itself doesn’t make you a star, though. Lots of violinists play brilliantly, including ones you’ve never heard of. Critics throw superlatives at Bell all the time—“the greatest American violinist active today,” “the most perfect interpreter of his generation”—but there’s no qualitative measure of musical greatness, so not everyone will agree. Listening blind, you wouldn’t mistake him for Perlman, for example, who has a fatter sound with wider vibrato and more liberal portamento, but both have their devotees.

Beyond his appearances with orchestras, in which he offers both the core concerto repertoire and the occasional new work, Bell’s accomplishments are numerous and his reach is long. He does recital tours and has recorded extensively (the latest of his more than three dozen discs, French Impressions, a set of sonatas recorded with frequent recital partner Jeremy Denk, came out last week). Last year he was named the music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, succeeding its founder, Neville Marriner. He makes arrangements and composes his own cadenzas, including the show-stopper in the Brahms last weekend.

Within the classical music world, that would be impressive enough, but few musicians—Yo-Yo Ma is the only contemporary example who comes to mind—have achieved such a high profile outside it.

Bell has recorded soundtracks for many films, from The Red Violin to Flowers of War; he has collaborated with other musicians including pan-genre bassist Edgar Meyer, singer-songwriter Josh Groban, and sitarist-composer Anoushka Shankar. And he’s been a newsmaker: in 2007 he was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post piece by Gene Weingarten, who asked him to play in a Washington, D.C. metro station and wrote about the reactions of passing commuters (ironically, this bit of wide public exposure for Bell was about how he was ignored).

Finally, on top of his accomplishments and collaborations, Bell has charisma. An all-American-looking guy from Bloomington, Indiana—the Hoosier Heifetz—he was a junior tennis champ who, at 44, retains his boyish good looks. People magazine named him one of “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World”; USA Weekend proclaimed, “Hot, young and single, Joshua Bell makes classical music sexy.”

(That said, when he came on stage for his latest appearance with the Oregon Symphony, I noted that his hair looks suspiciously youthful and was reminded of the old Clairol slogan, “Does she…or doesn’t she?” Judging from recent publicity photos, I’d have to say, “Oh, yes he does.”)

What a musician’s stardom means for symphony orchestras is simple: it enables them to achieve their twin goals of making great music and selling tickets. It comes at a price, which in Bell’s case the Oregon Symphony declined to specify.

As Jim Fullan, the orchestra’s vice president in charge of communications and marketing, explained, “The subject of artists’ fees is an understandably sensitive area… However, two things are certainly true: artists like Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and a very few others earn considerably more than our other talented guest soloists; and they correspondingly bring in considerably more ticket revenue as well. We—and our audiences—find it a winning combination.”

Those tickets sell even if compromises are involved. Bell was originally scheduled to play Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto two weekends ago, an intense work not frequently programmed, but announced a month before the concerts that he’d be playing the Brahms instead. Some fans were disappointed (see the comments to violist Charles Noble’s post about it); it meant a missed opportunity to hear what Bell would do with the piece during a season that already included warhorses by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bruch, and it also compromised the integrity of a program that would have been a sequel to “Music for a Time of War,” which got the OSO invited to Carnegie Hall last May.

I asked Bell about the substitution (in a conference call with three other critics, not the usual one-on-one—another sign of his star status). “Uh, yeah… it’s a little delicate, that one,” he said. “The Shostakovich is new for me, I have yet ever to perform it, and when we schedule these things two or three years ahead of time, it came down closer to the time, it didn’t fit in. I had so many things piled up on my schedule, and the other places where I thought I’d also play the Shostakovich fell through, and so I ended up with a single place to play it, and it didn’t make sense any more to juggle all the other repertoire I was doing.”

It’s safe to say that the switch didn’t make it any harder for the symphony to sell seats. Nor will the Bach Festival likely have trouble selling tickets to Bell’s concerts, even though he’s playing one of the most familiar of concertos, the Mendelssohn.

Some audiences will still get to hear him play the Shostakovich—he’s planning on touring with it next season—but it won’t be here, at least not for a while. He’s a star, which means that while he’s representing classical music beyond its normally insular world, everyone wants a piece of him, and you take what you can get.

Danish modern and more: Trio con Brio Copenhagen performs at Portland State University

Perhaps appropriately, given the new year’s daunting prospects in politics, economics and other affairs, 2012, in Portland classical music, started off with a backward gaze — and a prayer.

In its biggest project ever, involving more than two dozen of the city’s finest singers, Cappella Romana’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 All-Night Vigil was much more than a concert. Along with the Russian composer’s settings of hymns, canticles and psalms appropriate for the traditional Orthodox Saturday evening service, the Northwest’s pre-eminent vocal ensemble interpolated other choral arrangements by Russian composers of the time and earlier, including Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, creating what felt like an actual liturgical experience and thereby adding depth, breadth and historical context. Yet listeners were there for a musical experience, not a worship service, and the additional selections, well-chosen by CR music director Alexander Lingas, infused welcome stylistic variety to the program, particularly jolting the second half with more animated musical energy. The show also gained variety because the spotlight kept shifting to different soloists and subgroups, and the sound ranged from delicate to exultant. Still, it all felt remarkably integrated despite the music’s divergent eras and styles.

Even though a couple voices sounded a tad frayed on this third of three consecutive performance, and even though the augmented ensemble’s roster was barely sufficient for this music, Cappella Romana’s immaculate attention to detail and diction (they sounded Russian, not Byzantine), and the sheer power and character of those great voices, made the group sound bigger than it was; few other groups of that size would have been capable of generating enough sound to fill a cathedral in that particular music. (I heard the concert at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral, a relatively acoustically “drier” space than the other two, more resonant venues for this program, where they probably sounded much bigger.) As befits a sacred service rather than a stagier setting, the performance felt both restrained and reflective, yet still powerfully moving. As the group left the stage while singing the last of several seasonally appropriate encores, I felt less like applauding (though I did, of course) than saying “Amen.”


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