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A celebrated violinist keeps his focus on the music

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe

Joshua Bell has become the most popular violinist of his generation, a guarantee that there will be lines at the box office and excitement in the hall.

This weekend he is on hand to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Thursday night, the audience ate it up -- there was a huge ovation after the first movement, and it took awhile before Bell could pull a mute from his pocket and embark on the second movement. There was an amusing bit of byplay when he sought permission from Emmanuel Krivine to deposit his sweaty handkerchief on the conductor's music stand.

Bell's crossover ventures with Hollywood (''The Red Violin"), vocalist Josh Groban, and others may have contributed to his popularity, but he remains a serious, honest, and committed artist, even if he does instinctively start tossing his hair as climaxes approach. He met the challenges of the Tchaikovsky head on, and he made some interesting interpretive choices -- rather more portamento than we usually hear these days, rather less vibrato.

He has used his popularity responsibly -- he premiered the substantial concerto by Nicholas Maw, participated in Tod Machover's ''Toy Symphony" project, and at Tanglewood last year he offered his own cadenza in the Mendelssohn Concerto. It may be time to take a sabbatical from the Tchaikovsky, because some of it now sounds more calculated than spontaneous, and not all of the special effects -- such as sudden pianissimos at the top of phrases -- feel organic.

He had an experienced collaborator in Krivine, a dapper Russian/Polish conductor whose career has been based in France. In his youth, Krivine was a virtuoso violinist himself, a protege of Henryk Szeryng and Yehudi Menuhin. He knows how to be helpful, how to go with the flow, and when to stay out of the way.

Krivine was in his second pinch-hitting engagement with the BSO, replacing the ailing Yuri Temirkanov on relatively short notice. He opened with a lovely, flowing performance of the Prelude to Mussorgsky's opera ''Khovanshchina," a tone poem depicting ''Dawn over the River Moskva." This featured a cluster of classy woodwind solos.

After intermission, Krivine was not quite as successful in Brahms's Fourth Symphony. His technique is florid but helpful rather than self-serving. His performance was traditional, thoroughly informed, but almost ruthless, and it was pretty roughly played by the orchestra. Only the sensitive flute solo by Elizabeth Rowe in the finale, eloquently phrased, fluid in dynamics, recalled the light and shade of last summer's performance of this symphony at Tanglewood under music director James Levine. Krivine whipped the work home; Levine released it.

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