Of all the cities violin great Joshua Bell has played in during his remarkable 30-year career, Tucson holds a special place in his heart.
He was 18 years old in 1986 when the Tucson Symphony Orchestra hired him for the first time; it was one of the first orchestras to host him as he was starting out his solo career.
Bell, under then-Music Director Bill McGlaughlin, played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, the same piece he will play when he returns to the TSO on Saturday.
"I have nice memories of playing with the orchestra and then going mountain climbing with Bill, the conductor, afterwards," Bell, 45, recalled during a teleconference with West Coast reporters two weeks ago. "Over the years it's been a place that I wanted to come back. I told my management that if they ask me, that is a place I would like to go back to.
"I think the orchestra has gotten better, and it's always great to play there," he added. "Also, (Music Director) George Hanson is the one I actually went to school with at Indiana University. He's a bit older than me, but when I was first going as a 12-year-old and studying with (Josef) Gingold, he was there as a conducting student, and so we have that in common."
Bell's return is his first TSO appearance since his sold-out 2008 concert. And he returns to play what he says is one of his favorite works and arguably one of the greatest violin concertos composed.
"It's certainly a piece that I've done my whole life since I was 12," said Bell, the father of three who recently added the role of music director at Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to his workload.
When asked to describe the Mendelssohn, Bell said: "It's hard to answer without sounding clichéd and really corny because the obvious answer is that it's so beautiful and great that it continues after the thousandth time to inspire.
"It is true; there's a reason why it's often called the perfect violin concerto. The proportions and the way he wrote for the instrument and the beauty and the structure," he added. "Everything about it is just so well-written. It's a masterpiece. So it's a piece that I've also grown with. Certainly the way I play it now doesn't resemble my first recording of it with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields when I was 18 years old."
Bell recorded it years later adding his own cadenza.
"Those who know the piece well might be surprised by my own cadenza, which I like to write for all of my concertos. I was a little cheeky in replacing Mendelssohn's cadenza with my own," he said. "It's a piece of great music and deep music that also aligns with popular music. It brings the house down, and it's also something that's deep, profound and serious. It's a great piece."
Bell's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which he has performed with since he was a teen, returns to Tucson for a UApresents show March 5. Bell will not be with it as he was in 2007; the nearly 60-year-old London chamber orchestra was last here in 2011, a few months before Bell took the helm as music director.
"I feel like I've become a better musician by challenging myself in that way," the Grammy-winning violinist said of his leadership role.
It all affects how one defines music. When you're forced to define and articulate the music with an orchestra, ... it makes you relook at everything you've done."
If you go
• What: Joshua Bell in concert with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
• When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
• Where: Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.
• Tickets: $44 to $99 through www.tucsonsymphony.org
Mozart's Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro."
Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Wedding March.
Grieg's "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen."
Wagner's Prelude and Libestod from "Tristan und Isolde."
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.
Et cetera: Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Tuesday released a recording of Beethoven's Symphonies No. 4 and 7. To hear samples, go to azstarnet.com/calientetunedin