Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk at Benaroya Hall

By R.M. Campbell

Joshua Bell discovered some years ago that being a very good violinist was not sufficient to earn fame. So, he turned his attractive personality and boyish looks into a populist appeal. He appeared on television in all sorts of roles, did soundtracks, to name a few. The music world had already noticed his playing, now a wider audience discovered him. One might think he had cheapened himself somewhat in the process, but he didn’t. He continued to play with an immaculate tone, clean technique and appreciation for the music at hand, regardless of its origins.

Thus, it is little wonder that his recital Monday night at Benaroya Hall, on the Seattle Symphony’s Distinguished Artist Series, was near capacity. He didn’t play show tunes or anything remotely smacking of dumbing down to an unwashed audience. The program was all sonatas: Bach, Saint-Saens, Schumann and Ravel. It provided a welcome insight to the young man’s talent which has remained constant. His fingers are still nimble — very nimble in some cases — and articulate, his sense of proportion enviable and tone quality silvery and focused.

The Bach C Minor Sonata, which opened the concert, was played with skill and sensitivity. He made not much effort to give the work anything resembling period style, but it had the right scale and spirit. It was a thorough pleasure to hear. The Saint-Saens’ D Minor Sonata was high romance and a long vigorous line. The reading had plenty of facility but there was also understanding below the surface. The final movement, Allegro Molto, is really a perpetual motion of incredible speed, seemingly performed in one phrase. It took the audience’s collective breath away, particularly as Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk traded lighting passage work. Needless to say, the performance received a standing ovation.

The second half was devoted to Schumann’s A Minor Sonata and Ravel’s Sonata, composed in 1927. In the former, Bell was particularly expressive allowing the flowing lines of the composer’s ideas their full flowering. He played with boldness and intelligence, even wit. The sonata also ends with a perpetual motion in which Bell and Denk appeared as if they were dueling. The Ravel sonata is a quirky, anxious piece typical of Ravel in that period of his life. Bell and Denk settled into the piece quickly, at ease with its variations of mood. This sonata also concludes with a perpetual motion although the violinist has the bulk of the work in front of him.

Denk was a superb partner. A soloist in his own right, and a frequent participant at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Denk has the means to be an equal of Bell. And he was, only occasionally asserting himself too much.

The only disturbing thing about the recital was, of all things, the attire. Bell wore a burgundy-colored shirt trimmed in black that hung outside his black pants. Very convenient. One doesn’t have to change clothes from a casual lunch to the concert platform. Denk was a little more formal, with his black shirt, but also hanging loose beyond the waist. The reasons — to make concerts more comfortable for the audience — are obvious but they demean the concert experience.

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15 thoughts on “Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk at Benaroya Hall

  1. Does it really matter how he dresses? I can’t really imagine him all dolled up performing for his audience the way he does. The man likes to be comfortable, and make the concert-going experience comfortable. At least he’s not dressing like he rolled out of a cave, or something. He wears nice shirts and nice pants, and performs quite well. What more do you want from the man?

  2. Agreed. It seems irrelevant to me what someone wears when they perform so long as they are clothes. Pinchas Zuckerman wears the equivalent of concert pajamas when he plays. James Ehnes wore a tuxedo when he played with the SSO. Honestly, I don’t think what a performer wears has anything to do with making the audience comfortable.

  3. When you are one of the top performing violinists in the world, you can dress however you please. Performing in a loose shirt and comfortable pants is perfectly within his right, and criticizing him for that is nuts!

  4. For whom was Bell’s attire “disturbing”, the reviewer? Joshua Bell always dresses in this manner. It should be unremarkable. In fact, I would think that more formal attire would restrict a violinist’s freedom to play. A jacket’s sleeves and a buttoned shirt collar tightened further by a tie seems to me, a mere appreciative audience member, to be much too confining. After all, aren’t there female violinst’s who actually perform in strapless gowns? Talk about “disturbing”.

  5. Good grief, I didn’t completely check my spelling and grammaer usage before publishing my previous comment. Where’s my red pen? “Female violinists” is correct, not “female violinst’s”, whatever that is .

  6. Leave it to his typically addle-pated fans to completely overlook all the POSITIVE things mentioned about the performance (“his sense of proportion enviable and tone quality silvery and focused,” “played with skill and sensitivity,” “a thorough pleasure to hear,” “played with boldness and intelligence, even wit,” etc.), and see only the ONE comment about the clothes.

    Seriously, if you check out their online hangout (http://www.joshuabellforum.com/), you’ll see for yourself how they strain to gather up two brain cells to scrape together, among the lot of them. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of meeting several of them in person. I’ve never been able to figure out how most of them manage to make it online to squander bandwidth without electrocuting themselves as they plug in their computers. And they usually have personalities that match their complete lack of wit.

    He’s a fantastically gifted — OBSCENELY gifted, even — musician, but a horrible person. (I knew him in a personal capacity for several years. It was NOT an experience I would ever repeat willingly, though it taught me an great deal that I would not want to be without.) His thorough lack of fashion sense is the LEAST of his problems. Somehow, though, the face earns forgiveness for all, which sickens me. But something tells me they’ll just never catch ON. They’re just not that SWIFT.

  7. I was going to keep my mouth shut, but I just had to say something. I know I normally don’t follow my own advice on letting things go, but I hate it when people treat me and others like an idiot. I’m one of his “addle-pated” fans from the forum who made the Feb. 24th comment on here. I’m completely aware of the positive musical review, but just had to point out what was said about his choice of fashion. As a music reviewer, when you review someone’s music, I have always assumed that you look beyond the surface and focus on what the musician is actually doing…performing!

    I consider myself somewhat intelligent. I may not be a complete genius like you are, miss. I’m so “lack of wit” that I have written nearly 400 song lyrics, and mentally composed a select few without any help or musical instrument skill (before I even picked up the piano). I’m so “lack of wit” I practically wrote two short-story anthologies in my head before finally taking the time to write some of them down. I don’t know my fellow Joshua Bell fans personally, but I think they are quite friendly. I don’t know what it is, but they remind me of some of my peers that I know personally, that all share a common love…music. 🙂

    There’s two sides to every story, and Mr. Joshua Bell isn’t here to defend himself against your accusations of him being a “horrible person”. Are you sure you aren’t one of his fans who did not get what you wanted from the man (I think you know what I mean, since you are so smart), and you feel you have to trash the man? None of us are perfect. We all have bad habits, but to call someone “horrible”? That’s just cruel.

  8. Just like there are two sides to a story, unfortunately there are also two sides to Mr. Bell only people who’ve gotten to know him at a personal level and not from a fanatical level would know. Mr. Bell has a public persona that is very charming and he will go out of his way to reach out to his fans…after all that’s how he knows he will sell more and he knows how to do that part of the job well…more so than any other classical musician. If he were to show his true colors, his musical talent or looks alone would not amount to much. After all there are equally if not more talented and attractive classical musicians but they don’t charm the way he does. Those who are not his fans or know him on a personal level know he is false and that he guards the reality obsessively. But it would also be unfair to call dimwitted those who haven’t had the “pleasure” of knowing him on a personal level. It’s not their fault they’ve fallen for his charm and not his true self.

  9. Fortunately Mr. Bell has only two sides. I don’t know how many sides Ms. Ivanka and Ms. Eva have? I’d be scared to know. Now that you’ve exposed your own unpleasant true self which you didn’t have to; and I’m not really enjoying that at all since you don’t even have anything to offer. Btw, what prevents the other classical musicians not to charm the way he does? In my opinion, fans is important, especially when the artist is still out there; they need each other although later on we may have no choice in life. Let us have the joy while we can, would you?

  10. Hi again! Now that I’ve had some rest…. I meant to say that many of the other attractive and talented classical musicians who are, in their own ways,very successful too. They know how to charm their fans one way or another, and there’s nothing wrong with that charming the audience. One has to feel comfortable in his own self to do what suits him, and I see that Mr. Bell is very natural in being that.

    All I know is I was never interested in the classical music at this magnitude before. I’m glad I know what I know now, in depth, about the classical music and its related fields, and I won’t trade for anything else. I’m so thankful to Mr. Bell for being different to get my attention. The classical music really improves my inner personal life and that’s important to me. No doubt about that.

  11. Jean-
    Now that you’ve exposed your unpleasant side…which you didn’t have to either…I’ll just let you know in case you don’t, that I live in a country called the United States of America where all Americans have the right to an opinion. Until he proves himself otherwise MY opinion about him will remain the same. It is called freedom of speech…and if all I have to offer is my opinion I will continue to do so. If you need to be charmed into listening to classical music to educate yourself then good for you…but if your inner happiness depends on it then I advise not to involve yourself on a personal level with Mr. Bell. You’d be very disappointed!

  12. Be my guest, ma’am. For me, there’ll never be a chance to know him on a personal level like you did; I don’t wish to, ever, anyway. And you don’t have to persuade me. It’s beautiful for me to gaze at the star on the sky, and I like the way it makes me feel after a hard day at work. Likewise, of the music he plays; and that’s an enough a personal level to me. The other artists should be pleased that because of Mr. Bell I’ve got to know and like some of them as well. The end of the conversation! Thxs! Have a nice day, ma’am. I’m from the USA too, almost all my life.

  13. Really, ladies? Do we need to debase ourselves through personal attacks? I don’t know Joshua Bell personally, and it really doesn’t matter whether I do or not. He’s not up for a humanitarian award, his politics don’t interest me one way or another, nor do his fashion sense, his awareness of world events or his favorite color. He is a musician, and a fine one at that, and that is all I care about from him because that is what he does. The fact that he promotes himself is simply good business sense — it has long been a challenge for classical performers to become well-known by the general public because there is a perception by the public that classical music is stuffy, high-brow stuff that is unapproachable by Joe Six-Pack and family (many of my co-workers won’t come to a symphony performance even when I tell them I’m giving my tickets away for free), so any way a classical performer can receive notoriety short of being seen drunk in public or doing recitals in the nude is probably all for the good.

    I don’t care that Mr. Bell isn’t up for Mr. Congeniality — I’m sure we can all list more artists of every genre and medium who are unpleasant people in real life than ones that are personable as well as talented. Until such time as I learn that Mr. Bell is convicted of hate crimes, child abuse, or if he starts eating kittens, I really have no interest in him other than his ability to play the violin with skill, conviction and an understanding of the composer’s intent. If he’s a jackass offstage, well, I’m sure he’s in good company, but that’s unimportant compared to his art.

    To return to the original topic, now, his choice of clothing is of only passing interest, but I can sort of see the point of the original responders to this post — what he wears onstage is part of the performance in a way, his costume or uniform, if you will. While I gnerally agree that as long as he wears clothes, he’s fine, I also acknowledge that if it gets to the point where his attire is distracting or inappropriate, it can detract from the performance overall. But he’s not trying to get on Mr. Blackwell’s list of best dressed soloists. As previously stated in earlier posts, he wears what he deems appropriate to the venue while remaining comfortable and unrestricted to support his playing. Beyond that, who cares? If you’re really distracted by the fact that he doesn’t tuck his shirt into his pants when he plays, you should probably either close your eyes to listen to the music or just buy a CD and stay at home.

  14. Good point, Mr. Yuk!
    Mr. Bell is a simple guy and he doesn’t wear extravagant outfit a la Liberace whether in performance or in the street. What you see in photos is what you see in person. Who knows how many black outfits he has but that’s his color may causal, formal or meeting the audience. I’ve seen him performed many times on tv and live and I didn’t see his present outfit demeaned the concert performance at all. There’s nothing to distract my attention away from my experience in his good music presentation. Not even glitters nor sequence on his shirt. It’s a simple long sleeve untucked burgundy shirt! For me, it’s respectful to the venue and the program. I don’t know whether his choice of color and fit is appropriate to the changing season but for people who knows him as an artist and a person, they know it’s naturally him. It’s the music and his performance really counts.

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