Violinist Bell Explores Dreamland at Wadsworth

Slender in tone, graceful and lithe, gentle and small-scaled, the violin playing of Joshua Bell is a pleasant, untroubled dream.

Still, the 27-year-old American musician--a star in the violinistic firmament since the age of 14--made one wonder, in his UCLA Center for the Arts-sponsored recital at Wadsworth Theater on Saturday night: Is this dreamlike state really the one expected by these composers (Beethoven, Prokofiev, Kernis and Grieg)?

Perhaps not, but the playing is beautiful and effortlessly virtuosic. With the similarly light-fingered keyboard dusting of British pianist Paul Coker, Bell sailed handsomely through Beethoven's Sonata in A, Opus 30, No. 1; the Sonata No. 2 by Prokofiev; Alan Jay Kernis' substantial and charming "Air" (a co-commission from the UCLA Center in its West Coast premiere) and Grieg's old-fashioned and tuneful C-minor Sonata.

Bell makes a gorgeous sound, produces readings of logic and continuity, seems never to perspire (sweat is out of the question); his partner, Coker, is also a gifted, stylish and polite musician.

All of which made this event nice, but never hair-raising. And by failing to announce until after the program proper that they had reversed the order of the two big sonatas (Grieg and Prokofiev), the players cheated their audience at least a little bit.

Worse, the low-literary-standard program notes--is UCLA still a university or what?--ungrammatical and simplistic and written gracelessly to boot, added a shoddiness to the proceedings embarrassing to alumni of this campus.

At the very end, however, there was one bright spot to cheer these approving, appreciative patrons in the acoustically welcoming Wadsworth: In perfect taste--and in the same key as the opening sonata--Bell and Coker played a single encore, Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid," in as unaffected, uncluttered and touching a manner as may be possible.

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