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Violinist Bell sees ‘classical’ as still relevant, will solo with PSO

Mark Kanny
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Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Violinist Joshua Bell
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Pittsburgh Symphony
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda

Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell is an adventurous personality who’s not inhibited by the white-tie-and-tails image of classical music. In 1996, he won an international video-game competition for both Windows and Macintosh. In 2007, he donned a baseball cap and casual clothes to play incognito at a Washington subway station during rush hour to see how people reacted.

Bell’s latest foray beyond the concert hall is a brief appearance in the Amazon Prime Instant Video of “Mozart in the Jungle.” He appears playing the end of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra conducted by Malcolm McDowell, who portrays a senior conductor who’s been edged into emeritus status by a young Latino conductor named Rodrigo.

“It was fun shooting it near New York. I’m a fan of Malcolm McDowell, and it was fun that I got to work with him,” Bell says. “My general philosophy is to encourage classical music to be related to popular culture.”

Bell will solo with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda at concerts Feb. 28 to March 1 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Edward Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” and Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony.

Lalo wrote the “Symphonie espagnole” in 1874 for Spanish virtuoso and composer Pablo de Sarasate. The solo writing is full of vibrant personality and technical display, while the orchestration is colorful and transparent.

“I just played a recital at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor (Michigan). They had a program in my dressing room for a concert there in 1921 by Bronislaw Huberman, who owned my Strad,” Bell says. “He opened with ‘Symphonie espagnole’ — with piano in recital. How times have changed. It’s fallen out of favor in the last 30 to 40 years, but I think it is a wonderful piece.”

“Symphonie espagnole” was the first “concerto” Bell learned when he was young, choosing it over pieces by Felix Mendelssohn and Max Bruch. He plays the complete five-movement score, though some violinists omit the middle movement.

Bell already had a richly rewarding musical life as one of the world’s top violin soloists when in 2011 he became music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the English chamber orchestra founded by Neville Marriner.

“A lot of my satisfaction musically at the moment comes from exploring new terrain — conducting Beethoven’s Third Symphony and playing and directing Brahms’ Violin Concerto.”

He’ll record Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concertos with the academy this spring, followed by a recording of the Brahms with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Paavo Jarvi.

When he’s the conductor as well as soloist, Bell says he has more control of the rehearsal, and the music-making feels more like chamber music. But, while he feels this works with a small chamber orchestra, he wouldn’t want to try it with the larger Vienna Philharmonic.

Bell’s looking forward to working with Noseda again, describing the Italian conductor as “very energetic and very committed musically.”

Noseda’s second consecutive week at Heinz Hall will conclude with Liszt’s “Faust Symphony.”

“I love this symphony enormously. Without it and the other symphony, the Dante Symphony, and the tone poems, probably (Richard) Wagner would not exist the way we know him today,” the conductor says.

Wagner’s use of leitmotifs, easily recognizable musical ideas tied to characters or ideas which are then modified during the opera, is one of his distinguishing musical characteristics. He got the idea not only from the musical examples Noseda mentions, but also from brainstorming with Liszt in Switzerland.

“Liszt uses pretty much the same music for one hour, but the way he uses it transforms the tunes so they are almost unrecognizable. It’s fascinating,” Noseda says.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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