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Joshua Bell brings his classical essentials

Stewart Oksenhorn
Violinist Joshua Bell performs at Harris Concert Hall tonight. (Bill Phelps)
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When violinist Joshua Bell released his “Romance of the Violin” CDs – the first in 2003 and last year’s encore recording – he didn’t anticipate great reviews. The two projects were full of works for other instruments – piano concertos, vocal pieces – and newly transcribed for violin. Though such experimentation can seem, to the purist, impure and gimmicky, Bell does it for fun.The reviews, however, were most favorable; The Boston Herald called the first volume “honest, and a joy to hear.” “I expected the critics to be more cynical,” Bell said, pointing out that for 19th century violinists, most notably Fritz Kreisler, such transcriptions were common. “But I didn’t get that backlash.”

That display of deference likely can be traced to the mastery – and respect – Bell has shown for the bedrock violin repertoire. The 38-year-old Indiana native launched his career with the standards; his first CDs, from 1988’s “Presenting Joshua Bell” to a 1998 recording of works by Shostakovich and Messiaen, toed the conventional classical line. And he did it exceptionally well, many times being called the best violinist of his generation.Tonight’s concert at Harris Hall, part of the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music Artist Recital series, has Bell playing the classical essentials that he calls “the most important part of what I do.” He and pianist Jeremy Denk will perform Mozart and Beethoven Violin Sonatas, Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Five PiecesIn 1998, Bell started using his critical capital as license to explore other avenues. That year, he released “Gershwin Fantasy,” featuring such tunes as “I Got Rhythm” and “Love Is Here to Stay.” Since then, Bell has made it a habit to alternate, more or less, a standard classical recording with something well off the beaten path. In the latter category are his soundtrack recordings for the films “The Red Violin” and “Ladies in Lavender”; and “Short Trip Home,” an Appalachian-inspired collaboration with Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush and Mike Marshall.”I feel like there’s so many options, so many things to do,” Bell said in an interview in Aspen last summer. “The only limit is how much time I have. There are no other limits. There are so many ways to stretch.

“I love doing projects off the classical route – the movie projects, the bluegrass-type stuff with Edgar Meyer. I like shaking it up, trying other things.”Bell’s latest recording is standard classical fare, an all-Tchaikovsky project featuring the Violin Concerto and the “Danse Russe” from the ballet “Swan Lake.” But even here, he charts new personal ground: Recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, it is Bell’s first live recording. Doubly special, it pairs the violinist with the symphony Bell calls “probably the greatest orchestra around.”More daring ideas, however, are always in his mind. Meyer is composing a violin and piano piece for him, and Bell has been playing John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” concerto, spun out of the soundtrack music, during the last two years.

Perhaps most adventurous is Bell’s unleashing of his creative, as opposed to interpretive, side. The violinist has written his own cadenzas – solo passages – for Brahms and Beethoven concertos. He even wrote a cadenza for a Mendelssohn concerto, a particularly bold stroke, since Mendelssohn himself had written his own cadenzas for the piece. He envisions someday writing a solo violin sonata.”I feel that impulse,” said Bell, who studied at the Aspen Music School for two years, 1983-84, then took 15 years off from Aspen before becoming a regular fixture six years ago. “The cadenzas I’ve done brought out my most creative powers. The interpretive process is great, but there’s nothing like creating music. You really lay yourself out on the line when you do your own cadenzas.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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