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November 27, 2014

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Frankie goes to Hollywood (Bowl) for a reunion with Joshua Bell

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John Knopf

Violinist Joshua Bell & friends perform at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, California on Tuesday, July 8, 2014.

Frankie Moreno and Joshua Bell at the Hollywood Bowl

Violinist Joshua Bell & friends perform at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, California on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Launch slideshow »

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Joshua Bell and Frankie Moreno rehearse at the Hollywood Bowl.

NOTE: In a serendipitous quirk of scheduling, Las Vegas headliners Frankie Moreno of the Stratosphere and Clint Holmes of Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center performed on consecutive nights last week at the Hollywood Bowl. Moreno joined Joshua Bell on Tuesday night, and Holmes appeared in the “To Ella With Love” performance Wednesday night as part of the “Jazz at the Bowl” series. We tracked their experiences, as Moreno and Holmes were appearing at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time. This is the first of two parts:

• • •

LOS ANGELES — We start the story of the night at the end of the night. Frankie Moreno is residing in a rounded booth, dunking tortilla chips into at an order of artichoke-cheese dip at the restaurant Kitchen 24.

It is a late-night snack, ordered at 2 a.m. The scene in the all-night diner is bright with florescent light, loud with thundering dance music and percolating with customers. This restaurant is essentially the Peppermill of this neighborhood, a retro and trendy late-night hang for those ambling to and from nearby taverns and lounges.

Moreno had been seeking a quieter spot to finally unwind, and it seems that he should be experiencing a hard day’s night. Over the past 16 hours, he has flown into Los Angeles, set up at Loews Hollywood Hotel, run through a sound check at the Hollywood Bowl and then performed for several thousand people.

But Moreno is still eager to perform. He glances around the restaurant, as if looking for an unoccupied piano.

“Damn. I still want to play,” he says. “How long was I onstage?”

A little more than six minutes.

Moreno laughs.

“It’s all about the ‘where,’ right?” he asks, knowing the answer. This trip was all about playing the Hollywood Bowl for the first time.

• • •

The event was billed as “Joshua Bell & Friends,” hosted by Moreno’s friend and violin great who made that time count with a masterful rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” the song that united the two artistically five years ago.

In his introduction of Moreno, Bell was effusive in his praise of the Stratosphere headliner, saying, “He is a classically trained musician who plays piano like a virtuoso, but he is also a rock star. He is so many things and plays so many instruments — he plays the harmonica, but he’s not playing it tonight.” At that, the crowd laughed. Moreno was then brought out to a robust welcome and said one word — “Hello!” — as he took the piano bench.

The performance was the same arrangement the two worked out one afternoon shortly after meeting in 2009, just the piano, violin and Moreno’s powerhouse vocals. It is not quite a surprise that the sound in the Hollywood Bowl is terrifically balanced. Every movement of Bell’s bow across the strings of his 1713 Stradivarius (the world-famous instrument he purchased 10 years ago for about $4 million), and each note deftly played by Moreno on the Steinway & Sons grand piano, is felt by the 8,000 fans in attendance. The notes are so close, feeling like the artists are sitting next to you, and so pristinely modulated that you forget you are in a crowd of several thousand people.

For Bell, playing at such a wondrous venue as the Hollywood Bowl has become rote. It was his 18th appearance there. The violin virtuoso continues to mix up his lineup of friends in a sort of creative Cuisinart, which is what led him to Moreno several years ago. As the two noted during a chat on the Hollywood Bowl stage just after Tuesday’s sound check, their first meeting took place in an unlikely forum.

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Violinist Joshua Bell & friends perform at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, California on Tuesday, July 8, 2014.

“It was in 2009, at the Rush Lounge, Golden Nugget,” Bell recalled in a story familiar to the inner circle of both performers. “I had some friends in the Las Vegas Philharmonic tell me to come into this lounge and see this pianist they were really excited about. It was just when I was making an album with Sting and Josh Groban and some other people. Frankie and I got along really well, and I wanted to have him on the record somehow.”

Said Moreno, standing at Bell’s side. “Some time went by between when I met you and we actually started really talking about it. It was something so exciting, but I was wondering if it was going to happen.”

Moreno did not readily connect that the person he was introduced to was the man who issued one of Moreno’s favorite classical recordings.

“I was familiar with what he had done, but I didn’t put it together that this was the same guy who had done ‘The Red Violin,’ ” Moreno said. “I was mostly interested in recording with him, which seemed very interesting to me. It didn’t hit me until later who he actually was.”

Bell, who never misses a chance to chide Moreno, cut in with, “It still hasn’t hit him until now that we’re in the Hollywood Bowl.”

Bell said the collaboration was forged from his zeal to grow artistically. The two met at the band at the nexus of contemporary music.

“We obviously come from different places, and we thought, 'What about The Beatles?’ We’re both big Beatles fans — who isn’t — and settled on 'Eleanor Rigby,’ ” Bell said. “Sitting in a room and riffing on 'Eleanor Rigby’ is not something a classical violinist gets to do very often. It’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s also artistically very stimulating. Working with someone like Frankie makes that possible. I’ve always sought these musical friendships outside of my normal world just because it is inspiring.

“So we got together one afternoon and just came up with this arrangement.”

And that’s what they played at the Hollywood Bowl, where just about 50 years ago The Beatles themselves performed.

“Crazy, huh?” Moreno said, nodding toward the middle of the stage. “They played right there.”

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Violinist Joshua Bell & friends perform at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, California on Tuesday, July 8, 2014.

• • •

As Moreno hoofs it back to the hotel, the small group that includes his artistic and personal partner Lacey Schwimmer passes a woman who is curled up in an apartment entryway. She seems like the modern-day Eleanor Rigby, a figure that remains as powerful today as when the song was written nearly 50 years ago.

Moreno talks of the Hollywood Bowl, and of L.A., the place that inspired the song that opens his stage show, “Angel Town.” The song speaks of the lure of the City of Angels to so many artists. “Hey, kid, I can make you a star!” is the song’s opening, shouted lyric.

Moreno has now played the best that L.A. has to offer and relished the experience. It took a while to get there, of course, as the Hollywood Bowl is often compared to Carnegie Hall for its long and rich history. Moreno is reminded that he actually performed in Kenya, for dozens of children at a secondary school, before he ever set foot onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.

He laughs and says, “I just took a call today about playing the San Gennaro Fest, and I want to do that. I’m playing everywhere. San Gennaro, Hollywood Bowl. Maybe it’ll always be that way for me. But I love it. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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