By Montague Gammon III
A one-time subway busker – tall, good-looking and possessed of a multi-million dollar 1713 Stradivarius violin, a six-figure valued Tourte bow and prodigious, priceless talent – kicks off the classical music part of Virginia Arts Festival’s 20th year January 28 at the Roper Performing Arts Center on Granby Street.
Actually, multiple Grammy winner Joshua Bell was a busker one time only, back in 2007, when he played in a D.C. subway station as part of an experiment devised by Washington-Post writer Gene Weingarten. Seven people stopped to listen. Twenty-seven tossed him a total of $32.17; the only person out of more than 1000 passersby who did recognize him added an additional twenty bucks. (And that was 7 years after People Magazine had named Bell, who has been all over the TV screen, among its “50 Most Beautiful People!”)
The opening piece of the Arts Festival concert, in which honors-rich Bell joins with his frequent collaborator, acclaimed British pianist Sam Haywood, is the Chaconne for Violin and Piano in G minor, generally attributed to late-17th to mid-18th Century violinist and composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali (with many scholars’ reservations about his authorship).
Vitali, an orchestra director as well as an instrumentalist, began his professional career as a court musician at the age of 12. (More than a little like Bell, who made his public debut at 7, began studying violin with the great Josef Gingold at Indiana University at 12, and since 2011 has been music director of the oft-recorded Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.)
Vitali, or someone, takes violin and piano through a display of musical virtuosity that ranges from an almost dirge-like opening and gentle contemplative reverie to gripping emotionality in a mere 10 minutes.
Beethoven himself was the pianist for the 1803 premiere of his Kreutzer Sonata, as his Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano in A major, Op. 47 is generally known after French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, to whom it was dedicated.
The much beloved Kreutzer, second on Bell and Haywood’s program, is one of the few, and perhaps the only piece of classical music to have a great writer’s work of fiction named after it. (Count Leo Tolstoy’s rather turgid pot-boiler, his oft-banned, censored and censured novella The Kreutzer Sonata, is a tale of jealousy, adultery and murder, in which a violinist is the interloper in a romantic triangle.)
The composition and novella have also inspired at least three paintings of musicians mid-performance. The most famous, by René François Xavier Prinet, shows a violinist overcome by passion kissing his lady accompanist, and was used for years in advertisements for the perfume Tabu. Another is a dark, brooding depiction of a private recital in a cold garrett, by Lionello Balestrieri; American portraitist Joseph deCamp painted a notably dispassionate but lushly gowned and severely corseted female violinist against a richly curtained and floral background.
While contemporary consciousness might wonder at the tone of all those sensuously themed spin-offs, the Beethoven indeed provides a half hour of grippingly passionate energy; YouTube shows Bells’ face glistening with perspiration half-way through it.
French composer Gabriel Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in A major, Op. 13 (1876), partners piano and violin for another display of shared virtuosity. The piece is another performers’ favorite for its emotion, lyricism and drama.
The playbill promises, after these three works, “Additional pieces to be announced from the stage.”
Given that Bell has a discography of 40-plus recordings as conductor and instrumentalist and has worked with just about every major classical conductor and a hugely varied list of classical, jazz, pop, film and opera collaborators, there is a rich array of possibilities for those additional pieces and a more-than-reasonable certainty of enthusiastic ovations, and overtures, after which the ever-approachable Bell will autograph programs and recordings in the lobby.
Joshua Bell, violin
Sam Haywood, piano
Virginia Arts Festival
January 28, 7:30 p.m.
TCC Roper Performing Arts Center
340 Granby St., Norfolk