A strange image came to me on Saturday night, while I was watching Joshua Bell walk out across the stage of Hill Auditorium for the first time. The vast auditorium was packed with people — some college-age, many adults — and a sweeping wave of applause rolled across the many rows and balconies at the sight of him coming out. I had been to Hill Auditorium once before, to see the Avett Brothers my freshman year. For some reason, the thought occurred to me of how different it was, watching Joshua Bell walk onto the stage versus watching the Avett Brothers — or any musical group in the popular sphere with a large following — do the same thing. There were no whoops or hollers or screams of, “I love you, Joshua!” He walked slowly and professionally, violin in hand. The thought struck me out of nowhere and seemed like a funny one.
Yet in the world of classical music, Joshua Bell is the equivalent of a rock star. He’s been one of the most famous violinists in the world for years, and has played at numerous enviable venues around the globe. So while they weren’t leaping out of their seats or holding up signs with his name on them, the audience members did burst collectively into a roaring applause when they saw him.
And he didn’t disappoint. The first item on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major, K. 454,” which starts out very calmly. I was surprised at the soft, understated nature of the performance, but the piece soon picked up in excitement and speed. And no matter what the mood, Bell and Sam Haywood, renowned pianist and Bell’s fellow performer, were able to handle it with deftness and grace. The violin sonata was at turns playful and dreamy, energetic and tender. It was splendidly interesting to watch as Bell and Haywood appeared to trade phrases of the piece off between the two of them; one moment Bell’s playing would be more pronounced, with Haywood’s piano muted softly in the background, and the next, it would be the other way around.
This pattern continued throughout the rest of the concert. The next piece they played was Richard Strauss’s “Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18,” which they approached with the same level of attentiveness, care, and passion. Bell moved around the stage a great deal, seeming to feel the music physically during particularly enlivened moments. Bell and Haywood, who have played together on many occasions during the past, continued to blend their respective sounds together seamlessly, responding to one another in volume and time as if they were having a genuine conversation through their music.
The third piece on the program, and the final listed prior to the concert, was Franz Schubert’s “Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934.” This piece showcased the same skill and emotion, and it was an added pleasure when, following an encore, Bell announced two additional pieces from the stage. Much like a rock star, he closed out the night with encores and wild applause. When all was said and done, the auditorium was as alive with excitement as it had been waiting for him to come out for the first time a couple of hours earlier. He might not play rock music particularly, but the man is unquestionably a star.