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Joshua Bell balances celebrity and artistry with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

Pavarotti may be dead, but that road he followed from artistry to celebrity is still being trod by many a prominent musician active today. One of them was the star attraction with the Madison Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 6.

On the one hand, Joshua Bell appears on stage as a kind of E-string Elvis. Natural bodily movements are normal for instrumentalists, but Bell's gyrations--constant swing-and-sway, swell-and-swoon, lean-and-lurch, crouch-and-leap--can easily induce seasickness in the viewer. Best to close your eyes and just listen.

By doing so one can hear, on the other hand, impeccable technique, intonational perfection, beautiful richness of tone, great sensitivity in phrasing and inflection, and a perfect understanding of his musical assignment. All that was evident in his substantial contribution to the program, Max Bruch's "Violin Concerto No. 1," one of the prime warhorses of the concerto literature. Musically, a superlative performance, without a doubt.

He was to play two short items at the beginning of the second half, but, admitting they were encores, he advanced them to end the first half. They were typical of the transcriptions or semi-commercial trivialities offered in the well-hyped pops recordings he persistently advertises: a Mexican song, "Estrellita," as arranged successively by Manuel Ponce, Jascha Heifetz and himself; and the cadenza, a parody of Paganinian pyrotechnics, from John Corigliano's music for the film The Red Violin.

In top standing-ovation mode, the Overture Hall audience loved it all, though whether for musicianship, acrobatics or merchandising was not clear. Bell is young enough to come to terms with the dichotomy in his career so far. He continues to show truly artistic interest in serious musical works, old and new, even as he hawks his cocktail- party CDs and fails to restrain his distracting stage mannerisms, so it remains to be seen just how far he will go on that terrible, sacrificial road to mere celebrity.

The nicest thing about Bell's one-night stand was that it afforded our wonderful MSO an opportunity to present more music-making of its own beyond the subscription series. To be sure, the orchestra gave Bell solid and well-rehearsed accompaniment. But it opened the program with a full-blooded, roof-raising rendition of the Overture to Rossini's "La gazza ladra." And then it had the second part of the program all to itself.

Ravel's celebrated orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite, "Pictures at an Exhibition," is surely one of the few first-class rethinkings of the music of one great composer by another. This beloved adaptation is an orchestral staple, but is a demanding exercise for large orchestra. Under what must have been some schedule pressure, conductor John DeMain and his troops pulled together an admirable and even thrilling realization of the score. Oh, a few untidy moments in the brasses, but generally the winds and percussion handled their moments of prominence skillfully, and all hands did fine work. For this a standing ovation was unquestionably merited.

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