On the morning of January 12, 2007, a 38-year-old man sets up outside a busy metro station in Washington, DC. He is wearing your usual East Coast garb: jeans, long-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap. He proceeds to take out an old violin from his case and begins to play Bach’s most famous pieces for the next 45 minutes of rush hour.
Considering people had places to go, he received little attention and very few side-glances. One or two people would stop for a few minutes before tossing him a quarter and going about their way. When he finished playing, there was no sign of acknowledgement, no nod of approval or attention whatsoever. That day, he made a total of $32.17.
On Wed. Feb. 20, 2013, when the same man performed in downtown Santa Barbara he received not one, but three standing ovations. Little did the passersby of D.C. know that the man playing in the subway was in fact Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell. Coined as the “poet of violin,” Bell has been playing the violin since age four when his mother decided to buy him his first violin after he would collect rubber bands and tie them onto dresser handles to replicate musical notes. A decade later, he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra and professionally debuted at age 17 with the St. Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall. He has also performed solo parts in Oscar-winning soundtracks such as “The Red Violin” and “Ladies in Lavender.”
When Bell arrived on the elegantly decorated stage of the Granada Theatre with his accompanist Sam Haywood, he was dressed in a slick black suit and tie and carried with him his 300-year-old Stradivarius Gibson ex Huberman that only years ago people had dismissed as a dusty old violin. Haywood is a critically acclaimed pianist from England who regularly duos with Bell. The two have toured together to various countries including Canada and China as well as throughout South American and Europe. After the performance began it was plain to see that there may never be a better meshed musical duo than Bell and Haywood.
The program began with Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D. 385. As Haywood’s hands breezed across the piano like silk, Bell jerked his head and arms from side to side in time with each new chord. The audience was absolutely silent to the point where each breath Bell took resonated throughout the theater. When the piece was over, the audience remained silent in appreciation. Some younger listeners less acquainted with the classical music scene let out a few awkward claps and were shushed by their elderly counterparts.
The next piece performed was R. Strauss’ Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major. As Bell and Haywood switched from Allegro to Andante cantabile, there was an obvious shift from a somber atmosphere — almost too somber as the silence was broken by a snore or two — to an upbeat one with infrequent dramatic bursts of a sort of beautiful cacophony. Then the melody turned solemn as Bell swayed romantically, his facial expressions contorted to those of agony and melancholy. The sonata ended on a note so light that Bell’s bow seemed to float off of the violin strings. Someone uttered a soft ‘wow’ before the audience burst into applause.
After a quick intermission, Bell and Haywood jumped into Prokofiev’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D Major. The audience was noticeably enjoying the music more. And the music really was more enjoyable as Haywood played slower, disjointed accompaniments and Bell smoothed out note after note like two people performing on their own that just happen to fit together perfectly. Every piece seemed to tell a story and more and more heads began to nod. I didn’t find myself nodding along — this was clearly music of another generation — but the talent was still remarkable. As the song came to an end, Bell was greeted with another standing ovation.
After leaving the stage, an encore invited Bell and Haywood back. The past hour seemed to be merely a prelude to this moment when Bell announced that he will be playing his favorite song, Après un Rêve by Gabriel Fauré. It was the first song I recognized and I found myself holding my breath until the very last note. The duo finished with Introduction and Tarantella by Pablo de Sarasate, whom Bell described as a great violinist and composer. The song was executed beautifully with each note distinct from the next. Bell even included some finger plucking which amused the audience, amazed that one instrument can create so many different sounds. Soon the song was over and the duo received its third standing ovation, which continued on minutes after they had gone.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of February 28th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.
Photo Courtesy of Bill Phelps.