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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Shameless romantic
Violinist Joshua Bell combines passion and precision
Greatest American violinist?
Greatest American violinist?

Superstar violinist Joshua Bell is looking forward to his return to Madison to play a one-night-only concert with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. "Madison is such a great city, and I love the music scene there," he told me in our phone conversation. Bell last played with the MSO in 1988 and more recently in a sold-out performance at the Union Theater last February.

Bell, 39, whose dazzling technique and golden tone make him possibly the greatest American violinist playing today, ushers in a new age of the violin. He goes in for shamelessly tender romance executed with laser-sharp precision. For decades the piano held sway as the interpreter of the romantic soul, but now listeners want the violin's clear voice, and no one does clarity better than Bell, a 6-foot-tall, blue-eyed maestro from Bloomington, Ind.

The evening's program features Bell's performance of "Estrellita," "Pope's Concert" and a Bruch violin concerto, surrounded by Rossini's Overture to "La Gazza Ladra" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Bell will play his own arrangement of "Estrellita," created in collaboration with composer/arranger Jack Redford. "'Estrellita' is a song by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, and Jascha Heifetz transcribed it for violin and piano. It's on my album Voice of the Violin," says Bell. "A hundred years ago, people used to take pieces and arrange them for their own instruments. Over the past 30 years or so, we've gotten more into playing music exactly as written, but the nature of music is to be celebrated. Heifetz and [Fritz] Kreisler wrote lots of arrangements, and my album is a tribute to them."

Bell's concert wouldn't be complete without technical fireworks that drop the jaw, and "Pope's Concert" from John Corigliano's score to The Red Violin will do the job. Bell played all the solo violin pieces for the 1998 film, and he and Corigliano have teamed up again for the "The Red Violin Concerto," released on the Sony label last month. Not only does Bell play at top speed, but with a tone so clear it almost defies physics. And all of this will be played on a 1713 Stradivarius that Bell bought in 2001. "I love this violin. It's my partner."

The centerpiece for the concert is Max Bruch's "Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor," a romantic's delight composed in 1864. "I played the Bruch concerto when I was very little," says Bell. "I grew with it, and then I put it away for a while. When you learn something as a child, you have so many different associations with it, like sitting in an orchestra while everyone is scraping away. As an adult you see it in a different way and it touches you differently. Sometimes the concerto can be over-schmaltzed in performance, but I want to bring out its profoundness."

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