It wasn’t the castle. Nor was it the exquisite views, or the wonderful weather, or the feeling of being in a pastoral renaissance drama. It wasn’t even the awe-inspiring performances, though they ran a tight second.
No, what made Joshua Bell’s appearance at Castello di Amarosa tonight so infinitely remarkable is that during the intermission, while still bathed with perspiration from a dominating run-through of Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Joshua Bell hopped off the stage, strolled down the aisle, and hung out.
Classical musicians do not “hang out.” Classical musicians of Bell’s caliber, especially, do not “hang out.” But there he was, doing just that, hanging out—chatting with fans, charming old ladies, signing programs for young violinists, and taking photos with visibly bowled-over members of the audience.
You don’t get this kind of close camaraderie at Avery Fisher Hall or the Kennedy Center. But in the Napa Valley, Bell thinks to himself: What the hell. I’m at a castle, it’s kinda weird, and these people seem cool. I think I’ll stand over near that cast-iron dragon head under the coat of arms unfurled on the wall and, you know, hang out.
Bell’s casual presence didn’t diminish the absolute seriousness and command he demonstrated on stage just moments before, in an utterly stunning display of precision, taste, and verve alongside the excellent pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Jogging onto the stage in an untucked white shirt, magazine-current haircut and winning smile, Bell raised his bow and dove hungrily into Grieg’s sonata. Containing numerous passages which in the hands of others might be choppy or scratchy, the piece proved a demonstrable showcase for Bell’s glassy smoothness. Flawlessly quick changes from low growls to feathery high notes abounded, and Bell’s final note of Grieg’s second movement—reaching as high as the violin can play—had the gossamer quality of untouched water at dawn.
It may be a cliché to imagine an instrument as an outgrowth of the body, but if so, the cliché begins and ends with Bell. His 1713 Stradivarius protruded from beneath his chin as an extra appendage, a thing incomplete when it is not next to him and—in ways—vice-versa; he played it as if brushing back hair, natural and thorough. His connection was just as strong with Thibaudet, who joined Bell in a telepathic understanding of the piece and of each other, handling his end with a marvelous touch at the piano.
Bell has been performing the Grieg sonata for some time now, and it’s high time he recorded it. No doubt the crowd tonight would nominate Thibaudet as his studio mate. At the end, after the intricate plucking and ferocious dance passages of the third movement, the audience was on their feet, bringing the pair back to the stage for three separate sets of bows—all of them more than deserved.
Opening the concert was soprano Lisa Delan, in a light purple dress with thin straps, singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Four Dickinson Songs. A moving and often daring musical adaptation of four Emily Dickinson poems, the work nonetheless received a lukewarm reception, despite Delan’s dramatic interpretive ability. After the intermission, Thibaudet returned to the stage with the Rossetti String Quartet for a perfectly thrilling Piano Quintet in F Minor by Brahms. Like Bell’s performance, it was joined somewhat charmingly by the near-constant sound of birds chirping in the sky above the castle’s great outdoor room.
Festival del Sole co-founder Barrett Wissman was in a cream-colored suit jacket and black slacks, nursing a plastic cup of red wine; his wife, the cellist Nina Kotova, wore a chic black dress, diamond earrings and a gigantic amethyst necklace that attracted comments every ten feet or so. The Castello di Amarosa, too, was done up nicely; even the posts holding up the stage tent were covered in a faux stone to match the castle walls, as film crews from PBS were on hand, recording for a special.
But it was the close atmosphere and the proximity to greatness that defined the evening. In fact, at one point, while poking around upstairs, who should I see through a small stone window but Joshua Bell himself, in the castle’s dressing room, blowdrying his hair. It was a strange and beautiful moment, and one that I was glad I had my camera for.
All in all, it was a truly memorable night. More photos below.