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Joshua Bell/ASO

“I just flew in from Kansas City,” says Joshua Bell, speaking from his New York City home, “and I’ll be here for three days before I fly out to play three concerts this weekend.”

One of them is here, on Saturday, when the renowned violinist performs two works with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. “We’re excited to finally get to work with him,” says music director David Alan Miller, who will conduct the concert. “He’s a patrician violinist and an elegant musician, so this will be a great thrill.”

It’s also quite a coup for the ASO, having yet another of the world’s top string players on the bill, following appearances by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Bell is a comparatively young artist whose repertory ranges from warhorses to works he’s commissioned, but he’s also very aware of the history and traditions of the violin.

“My biggest influence was my teacher, Josef Gingold, who was himself an incredible violinist,” says Bell. “He introduced me to the sound of all of the greats. We’d listen to 78s of Kreisler and Elman and Tosha Seidel. And Heifetz, of course. And Gingold himself was a student of Ysaÿe, so he, too, was carrying on a valuable tradition. I think it was very important to get early exposure to players like that.”

Bell drew national attention with his first symphonic concert at age 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was quickly followed by a Carnegie Hall debut, a recording contract and enough prizes and international appearances to propel him into the first rank of soloists.

The promise of Bell’s teenage years have been more than fulfilled during the ensuing two decades. Through his many concerts and recordings, he has maintained an impossibly high standard of artistry. He is as comfortable playing chamber music—usually with very distinguished colleagues—as he is on the orchestral stage, and he even has made appearances with such performers as James Taylor and Sting.

Bell worked with composer John Corigliano on the Academy Award-winning score for 1999’s The Red Violin, and even appeared (as a stand-in) in the movie itself. He also has worked with such composers as Nicholas Maw and William Brohn; the latter fashioned Leonard Bernstein’s music into a “West Side Story” Suite, one of two works Bell will perform with the Albany Symphony.

“I worked with Bill on the violin part,” says Bell, “tweaking what he’d already written.” Brohn was working with Bernstein as an arranger when he had the idea for the suite, to which the composer gave his blessing. Bell also contributed a fascinating cadenza that’s played near the end of the piece.

Rather than taking a song-by-song “best of” approach, the suite makes its own unique journey, visiting familiar musical moments along the way. In that way it’s reminiscent of a tradition that peaked in the 19th century.

“This picks up on works like Sarasate’s ‘Carmen’ Suite and those opera paraphrases by Wieniawski and others, in that it gives the soloist some virtuoso moments.”

The big concerto on the bill is the well-known Mendelssohn opus, a piece that has been one of the top favorites since its 1845 premiere. And it’s one that Bell has been playing since the start of his career. “It’s a wonderful work,” he says, “but I’ve never been a hundred percent enamored of the cadenza. It never knocked my socks off. So I thought, What if I wrote my own?”

It’s known that the cadenza was written, at least in part, by the violinist who first performed the piece. “But the way it’s situated makes it difficult to change. It’s not the classical kind of cadenza that ends with a long trill. So I wrote a new one. I figured it wouldn’t kill anyone if I did.” You’ve heard the cadenza if you have Bell’s recording of the work with Roger Norrington conducting the Salzburg Camerata.

The program also will feature the world premiere of Peter Child’s Washington Park, a work inspired by Albany’s very own recreational area, and Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss.

Joshua Bell and the Albany Symphony Orchestra will perform Saturday (Jan. 26) at 7:30 PM at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave., Albany). Tickets are $23 to $46. For more info, call 465-4663.

—B.A. Nilsson

PHOTO: Joe Schuyler

M. Butterfly

Twenty years after Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play, M. Butterfly—the story of a French diplomat posted in China during the Vietnam War and his 20-year affair with a Chinese opera diva—opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, we find ourselves again in the midst of a war. A war that Hwang described to The New York Times last month as “an M.Butterfly war, where we are not necessarily welcome liberators.”

We’re struggling, too, with issues of racial and gender stereotypes and prejudices—issues that figure prominently in the untwisting story of M. Butterfly. Directed by Nick Mangano, who has received national and regional acclaim, the production could not be more timely.

Note for the kids and the painfully modest: This show contains adult content and nudity.

M. Butterfly is currently playing at Capital Reperatory Theatre, and runs through Feb. 10. Curtain is at 7:30 Tuesday through Thursday, 8 PM Friday, 4 PM and 8:30 PM Saturday, and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets range from $29 to $44. For more information, or to make reservations, call the box office at 445-7469.

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