What a happy partnership: Joshua Bell and great music. For all that the classical repertoire has done for Bell — an all-American child prodigy whose star has never ceased to rise — he has returned the favor many times over. His playing remains impeccably well-informed and silky smooth after four decades in the spotlight, and he takes the preciousness out of classical virtuosity without sinking in crossover creek.
On Thursday, February 3, Bell will help UCSB Arts & Lectures celebrate a triumphant return of classical recitals to The Granada Theatre with pianist Peter Dugan in a program that supports the case for the violin as music’s most transcendent instrument. Relaxed, open, self-aware, and clear-eyed about what he and music can do, Bell delivers an implicit message of hope that’s deeply inclusive and empathetic.
Following his marriage to soprano Larisa Martinez in October 2019, Bell hit the same wall as every other performing artist in the spring of 2020. Faced with the prospect of spending the pandemic in his Gramercy Park home, Bell retreated to his country place in upstate New York, where he sheltered in place with Martinez, his three children, and a basketball that he spent hours sending through the hoop in his driveway. In partnership with Martinez and Jeremy Denk, Bell delivered one of the pandemic’s most accomplished home performances, At Home with Music, a PBS television broadcast and subsequent album that ranged from Chopin and Bach to songs from West Side Story.
Thursday night’s program for Arts & Lectures has Bell playing some of the most revered works in the violin repertoire. The Schubert Sonatina in D major is a personal favorite of Bell’s; the Sonata No. 7 of Beethoven is, as Bell pointed out to me in a phone conversation last week, in the same key as the Fifth Symphony; and the concert’s conclusion, the violin and piano sonata No. 2 of Maurice Ravel, is one of the undeniable pinnacles of 20th-century composition. The slow movement, with its bluesy feeling, connects Ravel to America and to Gershwin, and the finale, marked “perpetuum mobile,” connects the performers and the audience to eternity.