A young violin virtuoso celebrates Bernstein's 'West Side Story'

Young violinist Joshua Bell was a child prodigy who blew audiences away with his talent and passion when he debuted at the age of 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti.

Two decades later, he has recorded 24 albums - and he won his first Grammy Award this year for his recording of a violin concerto written by English composer Nicholas Maw. He was the violinist heard in "The Red Violin," a 1998 art-house movie that drew a substantial audience. People magazine also named him one of its "50 most beautiful people."

Now on tour in the United States, Mr. Bell has released a new CD, "Bernstein: West Side Story Suite" (Sony Classical), a recording of Leonard Bernstein's most famous work. He'll also play it with the New York Philharmonic in Central Park July 10. That night on the same stage, a new Bernstein postage stamp will be unveiled.

The new album, arranged for violin and orchestra by William David Brohn in collaboration with Bell, is not only a tribute to the great American composer, it is also a magnificent vehicle for a virtuoso. The Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of David Zinman, underscores the riches of the original music. But it's Bell's violin, not human voices, that "sings" the melodies in this version.

"The violin is a great singing instrument," said Bell in a recent interview. Some people label this kind of music "crossover," he says, as if moving from singing to an instrumental version of a piece were somehow something new. "In the 19th century, great virtuosi would take an opera that they loved like 'Carmen' and make a 'Carmen Fantasy.' It was a way to take the music they loved from the opera houses to their own audiences."

Bell grew up in Bloomington, Ind., listening to all kinds of music - especially jazz, bluegrass, and rock, right along with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Prokofiev. "The music of Bernstein speaks to me more directly than a lot of what we call 'serious' or 'classical modern music,' " Bells says.

Not all music need speak to all people, he says. Beethoven's late string quartets were so far ahead of his time that a lot of his audiences found them incomprehensible.

On the other hand, he says, nowadays people think that when a piece of music is incomprehensible it will later become known as great music - and that's not true, either. "When music becomes so theoretical that it appeals [only] on a nonmusical level, it's just boring...."

Bell does aspire to compose, though so far his efforts have been confined to writing his own cadenzas to the violin concertos he plays: "I'm just giving it time."

"What I do as a musician is pretty simple," he explains. "My goal is to transplant the listener through the piece I'm doing. In the case of Beethoven, he has constructed an amazing world, and no one can get there unless someone like me takes them there. I want the audience to go away thinking, 'This is amazing music - I'm moved by that piece.' That means I've done my job. I think it's a mistake to try to do a piece in a way it's never been done before just for the sake of novelty."

He considers Bernstein one of the great composers of the 20th century because he managed to fuse classical, pop, and jazz into new musical ideas. For years, Bell had felt that "West Side Story," one of his favorite pieces of music, would make a fine piece for the violin. A similar project, in which Bell recorded Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," made it obvious to him that "West Side Story" would work, too - and then it fell in his lap when composer-arranger Brohn asked him to collaborate on it.

Says Bell: "Bill Brohn made it into a piece that celebrates the violin."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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