Tchaikovsky concerto tracks Joshua Bell's artistic growth

Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.Marc Holm

Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.Marc Holm

Joshua Bell comes by his superstardom for many reasons.

The violin virtuoso, who will perform Thursday with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, has become known for being involved in film soundtracks, performing with the likes of Sting and Josh Groban, winning the Avery Fisher Prize and fiddling for change in a Washington, D.C., subway station (he got $32.17 for 45 minutes of playing, but only one person in more than a thousand recognized him).

The Grammy winner has a 300-year-old Stradivarius with a notorious history, had a hit album (Romance of the Violin) at the top of the classical charts for 54 weeks, and at 43 still favors a boyish look even though he's been in the public eye for nearly three decades and recorded his first album 25 years ago.

The main reason for his superstardom, though, is Bell's compelling performances. From prodigy to adulthood, he has performed with a technical and expressive excellence that has kept him a favorite of audiences and critics.

So it was with great excitement that the Memphis Symphony announced last year that he'd be playing this special concert at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Bell will perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, as challenging as it is popular. Also on the program are Schubert's Overture to "Rosamunde" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D major.

Bell recorded the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 2005 with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Berlin Philharmoniker. But he also recorded a version with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1988.

"I've played it my whole life," he said in a recent interview. "I fell in love with the (Jascha) Heifetz recording in summer camp when I was 11. I've lived with it a long time, and it's like an actor doing 'Hamlet' — I don't get tired of it, and my approach may change."

As he matured, he felt he needed to do the second recording. "It's one of the great works for violin and one of Tchaikovsky's best instrumental pieces for sure," he said, "and by far one of the most exciting, visceral concertos for the instrument."

Bell — taking the Hamlet analogy further — spoke of performing in the fullest sense, not simply playing with technical dexterity.

"If you just play the notes, it's like just reading words," Bell said. "Sure, it's amazing to see the technical feat, but really it's about what you communicate to the audience. The piece is incredibly complex emotionally, with so many levels. It's not just fireworks; it's got all kinds of nuance and subtlety."

Bell noted Tchaikovsky's reputation as a brilliant ballet composer and a master of elegance. He said the violin concerto loses something, "If it's played on the bombastic and heavy side, when in fact so much of it is lighter and elegant."

He's branching out now beyond performing. One new task is that he's on the board of directors of the New York Philharmonic. And there's more: "Now I'm doing a lot more directing orchestras," he said, "and developing a strong relation with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and doing touring and learning symphonies, which is a whole new world for me."

Joshua Bell with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Thursday at Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, 255 N. Main. Tickets: $30-$80. Go to memphissymphony.org, or call 537-2525.

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