There are those who believe in coloring within the lines and those who believe that lines are unnecessarily restrictive. Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell belongs to the second group. Acclaimed for his bravura work with the classical repertoire, he sees no need to stay within those lines. Music is music and there is a wider world of musical expression just waiting for the right artist.
That Bell is the right artist is evident from the success of albums like his Romance of the Violin (2003) and Voice of the Violin (2006), where he played a selection of transcriptions of memorable mostly classical melodies written for voice and other instruments. His 2009 album, At Home With Friends, went even further outside the lines. Here not only did he expand the repertoire, he began to work with a roster of all-star performers from the broad variety of musical genres; Sting and Josh Groban, Dave Grusin and Marvin Hamlisch.
Certainly these kinds of albums are not unique. Classical artists have not been shy about trying to develop popular audiences. And if purists lament this as watering down or selling out, in the long run i may well be the kind of thing that helps to fill concert halls in this new age when classical orchestras all over the country are suffering financially.
Now, in plenty of time for the holiday season, Bell is out with a second multi-artist collaborative collation, Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends. Working again with some of the friends from 2009 as well as a raft of new ones, Bell delivers a sack full of glittering presents for all the ‘nice’ music lovers among us, certain to make the ‘naughty’ among us mightily sorry for our bad behavior.
The 16-track album begins with Bell and Alison Krauss doing an elegant version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and ends with the violinist joined by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City for “Silent Night.” Between the two, there is something to please everyone—variety is the key. There are opera stars: Placido Domingo sings “O Tannenbaum,” Renee Fleming, “I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas.” There are jazz greats: Chick Corea joins in on “Greensleeves,” and Branford Marsalis does an amazing “Amazing Grace.” Las Vegas is represented by Frankie Moreno’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Broadway by Kristin Chenoweth’s “O Holy Night.”
There is an attempt at mixing in a bit of humor in “Christmas Confusion” with Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-ki Joo. There is a little Latin shout-out in “A Christmas Auld Lang Syne,” where he is joined by Gloria Estefan and Tiempo Libre. There is a nod to Jewish friends with a new arrangement of Ernest Bloch’s “Baal Shem: Simhat Torah,” played with cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Sam Heywood. Whether it be a “Nutcracker Medley” with Straight No Chaser, “White Christmas” with Chris Botti, or Faure’s “Ave Maria,” this is truly an album with something for everyone.
Only an Ebenezer what’s-his-name could find fault, but even he would find it difficult.