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Violinist Joshua Bell brings down house with MSO

Christopher Seaman
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

By Elaine Schmidt

You can argue as much as you like against the "star system" in place in the classical music world, but when someone like violinist Joshua Bell takes the stage, you just have to sit down and listen.

The violinist appeared in a special performance with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Wednesday evening, bringing down the house with a performance of Bruch's Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, and then again with his unaccompanied encore.

Bell is a commanding, deeply musical, technically breathtaking performer. Wednesday night, he brought a combination of an enormous, malleable sound, absolute technical precision and artfully sculpted and colored phrasings to the concerto. He balanced striding, bold passages with moments of intimate, heart-on-his-sleeve expression, creating a gripping musical experience.

Bell pulled his audience into his performance immediately, with decisive statements in the piece's first movement. He created heartbreaking phrases in the adagio second movement and brought the raw musical abandon of gypsy fiddler to the final movement's allegro energico passages.

Guest conductor Christopher Seaman and the players of the MSO supported Bell beautifully, matching the character and depth he brought to the piece while giving him the musical and dynamic freedom he needed.

Bell answered a cheering, standing ovation with an encore of Vieuxtemps' "Souvenirs d'Amerique." The bravura piece is a wild barrage of notes that swirl around the simple tune "Yankee Doodle."

With it, Bell did not only what a piece of this ilk is designed to do - display technique - he also engaged and entertained the audience. He earned a quick wave of laughter when the "Yankee Doodle" theme first appeared and another thunderous standing ovation when the piece ended.

Seaman and the orchestra played Haydn's Symphony No. 100 ("Military") with a balance of discipline and musical character. Their rendition was precise and clean, yet robust and full of contrasts.

Every phrase had its place in this performance, stating a theme, reflecting what had come before or presaging what was to come. Those phrases were executed with well-blended, thoughtful playing from each section of the orchestra.

Seaman and the players of the MSO opened the evening with an engaging performance of Mozart's overture to "La clemenza di Tito" that was built of long, regal crescendos, gracefully arced phrases and clearly stated musical contrasts.