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Joshua Bell lets the music speak through violin

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Joshua Bell Credit: Pittsburgh Symphony

Joshua Bell is one of the big names in classical music, and his reputation is only going grow now that he's taken up conducting.

He became music director of London's Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in September 2011.

The violin remains Bell's primary mode of expression, however, one that makes him a frequently sought guest by great orchestras around the world.

Bell will play Bernstein's “Serenade” at this weekend's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concerts led by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena on April 12 through 14 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Mena, making his symphony debut, also will conduct Mason Bates' “Desert Transport” and Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3.

Bell says “Serenade” isn't a piece he does every year but certainly is fun to return to. Next week, Bell will play it with the New York Philharmonic led by its music director Alan Gilbert. Bell also will perform on the philharmonic's May European tour.

“It's a fantastic piece. I love Bernstein as a musician. He's a hero of ours and an amazing composer. I think this is one of his strongest pieces — maybe his best piece, but I am biased,” the violinist says.

Bernstein's “Serenade” was inspired by a re-reading of Greek philosopher Plato's dialogue “Symposium,” which is in the form of a series of after-dinner speeches about love. The talking is interrupted by the arrival of partiers attuned to a more-visceral experience. It was dedicated to one of Bernstein's mentors, Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky and first performed by Isaac Stern and the composer in 1954.

Bell emphasizes, as Bernstein did, that there is no literal program for the “Serenade.”

“The music speaks for itself. Obviously, you do not need to know anything about Plato's dialogue,” he says. Bell read the Plato work in high school before he learned “Serenade.”

The piece is full of internal contrast right through to the end, when the “deepest and most darkly searing part of the whole piece” is followed by the most exuberant, Bell notes. “The ending really wakes people up. He puts in a little jazz, all Bernstein's personality.”

Bell's enthusiasm for Bernstein is reflected in his commissioning an arrangement of music from “West Side Story” for solo violin and orchestra, which he has recorded for Sony Classical coupled with “Serenade.”

While Bell is returning to Heinz Hall in his most familiar role as solo violinist, he's thinking a lot about his responsibilities as music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, succeeding Neville Marriner.

His first recording with the chamber orchestra has been released on Sony Classical and couples Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. He recounts in the liner notes how he fell in love with Beethoven symphonies as a child, that the Seventh was his mother's favorite, and the big impact seeing a video of conductor Carlos Kleiber had on him.

“I think the early music approach has been a great thing for Beethoven. I try to take the best bits but not throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says Bell, who enjoys leading from the concertmaster chair. Vibrato is not totally banned, and he feels free to employ bowings that might not have been used in Beethoven's time.

“I don't want to make a point with style, whether it's (Johann Sebastian) Bach or Beethoven,” Bell says. “When you're aware of the person making a point, it detracts from what's going on. You should tell the story in a personal and honest way.”

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

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