Tale of two violins

Male-pattern baldness on middle-aged men. Judging by the back of the audience’s heads at the Joshua Bell concert at the Mondavi Center on Wednesday, roughly one out of six attendees had this in common. And a few days later, I found myself at the Crest Theatre at another famed violinist’s concert, Bijan Mortazavi, scanning for a similar ratio.

The pattern wasn’t as prominent there, but that’s perhaps one of the more insignificant differences of the two violin concerts I witnessed in one week. And, frankly, they were disparate experiences.

Bell, 43, grew up in Indiana, and has been called “one of the finest classical musicians in the world” by The Washington Post. Mortazavi, 53, emigrated from Iran in 1979, and plays Iranian contemporary music, which sounds like a mix between Middle Eastern string melodies, serious ballads (he sings, too) and disco. Both are known internationally, and both have instruments with interesting origins. Bell’s, of course, is a multimillion-dollar 1713 “red” Stradivarius; Mortazavi’s is a white violin handmade in Iran.

Bell’s performance was for the introverts, the romantics. Dressed in an untucked black button-up and black trousers, both with a satin sheen—not unlike his thick, floppy, shiny brown hair—he swayed onto one foot, his other foot fully extended and on its toes before he bowed his first note. He lead that glossy Strad in a dance, coaxing it to sing. And it obliged. Accompanied by Sam Haywood on a black grand Steinway—who was accompanied by a young tuxedo-clad sheet-music page turner—the violin’s tone was buttery, Bell’s playing passionate and beautiful. Swept up in the sounds, I committed a classical-music faux pas and applauded in between movements.

The nearly full theater offered standing ovations at the end of each piece. And Bell hadn’t peeped a word until he and Haywood returned for an encore of two pieces, including “Romance” by Sibelius, and for a second encore of Chopin’s “Nocturne” in C sharp minor, which resulted in the audience’s biggest reaction during the two-hour event: a hushed “Ooh!” Endearing.

Alternately, a few nights later at the Crest, Mortazavi’s show was for the extroverts. He was also clad in head-to-toe black: a suit, no tie, a red handkerchief, trademark mustache. He was backed by a full band, including congas, drum kit, six-string bass, keyboards, his own acoustic guitar and a vocalist. Mortazavi’s known for playing swiftly, and uses his blanched violin in less of a sensual way than Bell. The sound of the instrument is sharper, acidic, but suits his compositions. It was rumored that he used to ban dancing at his shows, but that wasn’t the case at the Crest. It began with a few brave ladies unable to contain themselves to his upbeat songs, rising from their seats, dancing in front of the stage and some others in the aisle between the two seating levels. And after two hours of performing, an intermission and nearly an hour of the concert organizers talking about nonprofit Child Foundation, which the performance was a benefit for, the largely Iranian audience—from 20-somethings to septuagenarians—had turned the Crest into a dance party. Three hours deep, there were at least 100 people on their feet. This was going to go on for another hour, but I left. Guess that makes me an introvert.