Artist: Joshua Bell
Venue: Musical Arts Center, Indiana University
Mileage: 4.4

Another hometown show – starring a homegrown virtuoso, violinist Joshua Bell. I first heard about Bell many years ago, when he was a child prodigy studying at IU with Josef Gingold. He’s now a famous fiddler, of course, with a slew of recordings and awards and an international career. He’s also on faculty at his alma mater, which means he comes home now and then to perform a recital. The Jacobs School of Music charges a small admission for these events (this week’s tickets were 20 bucks for the good seats, less for students) and they always sell out.

And rightly so. The guy is seriously good. I’ve had the amazing experience of sitting front row center for one of them, close enough to hear his intake of breath as he charges into a piece. This time around I wasn’t that close, but –

Well, here’s the thing. I bought my ticket the day they went on sale, and I was front row of the balcony, roughly dead center. Only, I’d never had a reserved seat in the balcony before (I’d sat up there, but not for a ticketed event) and so I just headed for the top level and was directed to my seat by an usher. Who, as it turns out, probably should have looked more closely at my ticket. See, there are three levels of balcony, and my ticket was for the first level – not the third, where I was sitting. I didn’t realize this until the people rightfully owning tickets for my seat and the adjacent one showed up. And, of course, they didn’t show up until the very last second, so I was the annoying person pushing past people trying to make my escape as the lights were going down and the music was about to begin. Lucky for me, there was one empty seat towards the end of the row, so I quickly sat down there and enjoyed the first set. (Do you call it a “set” at a classical recital? I confess I’m not well-versed in the language of classical music.) Then at the intermission I found my proper seat, which was considerably lower-altitude – actually a fantastic seat. I’ll probably aim for that seat again next time I buy a ticket at the MAC.

Program. 

The program was all Beethoven, with Bell leading a student orchestra. The first piece (Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21) saw him sitting in the first violinist position, conducting the orchestra from his seat while also playing his parts. Fun to watch! Then after the intermission, he performed the Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 61, standing front and center – turning around to conduct at times, and performing original cadenzas here and there. I had to look up how this works (again, not so familiar with classical terminology) – it was exactly what it seemed to be: the orchestra performing the concerto and Bell jumping in here and there to perform virtuoso solos which he’d composed himself to go along with Beethoven’s original score. Imagine that a rock band is playing along dutifully and every so often Jimi Hendrix leaps out front and rips the roof off the place – it was kind of like that. It’s true that I’m no expert, but it doesn’t take an expert to get that Joshua Bell can PLAY. There were moments that were breathtaking, and single sustained notes that made me nearly weep.

Watching him perform live is always so much fun, too – he’s very kinetic, using his whole body to coax music from the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius that he plays. And yes, for those of you also less familiar with classical music, that “1713” means that is the year the violin was built. That sucker is 300 years old. I can’t even imagine how much it must be insured for! I do believe that good musical instruments have souls, of a sort – as all works of art do – and certainly, personalities. I’m sure the technology exists to make your average everyday violin sound much better now than average violins sounded 100+ years ago. But a special violin, like this one, is still a little piece of magic. And if there is a heaven, I could do worse than to hear sounds there like I heard in the MAC the other night. Each note was exquisite.

Oh, and the student orchestra? Sure, they’re students, but IU’s Jacobs School of Music is consistently top-ranked – and these are musicians you’ll be paying good money to hear in just a few years. I always forget how much I enjoy hearing a big old orchestra performing live; it’s such a rich, complex, magnificent sound. And I love the formality of it: the warming up and tuning, the sitting at attention waiting for the concertmaster to take the stage, the respectful silence from the audience (and the absence of flickering phone screens during the music – I did sneak a couple photos of the curtain calls, though, as did a number of other folks I saw). It’s a ritual that’s both comforting and exciting. My first concerts as a wee small child were symphonies, so it’s in my blood a little bit, I guess.

Venue Tips: 

  • If you’re in the balcony, figure out which level you’re supposed to be on, and go there. Doh!
  • That said, even the seats high up in the highest balcony are not unenjoyable. The acoustics in the MAC are incredibly good, and (so long as you don’t have a super tall person right in front of you) the sightlines are pretty good throughout as well.
  • You can park in the Jordan Ave. garage, which is across the street and maybe half a block down from the MAC. There’s sometimes a fee for event parking – $5 or $10 I think? – but for this it was free. And of course if you have an IU parking permit you can park there as always. Get there early, before the crowds – and don’t be in too much of a hurry to get out.

Next up: Victor Wooten Trio, March 7 (I ended up missing this as I was sick. 😦 )

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