Bell: A Genius of Note
by Joan Baum, Ph.d.
surprise is not that Joshua Bell, the world renowned violinist,
lives up to the hype about him as an all-around wonderful guy,
or that at 34 he is that relatively rare example of a prodigy
who has made good, but that he handles his still-growing fame
with such ease and confidence that he can switch suddenly from
humorous quip to profound comment and give the impression that
an intimate and deeply reflective conversation has just gone
on. Beyond the movie-star good looks (People Magazine voted
him one of the “50 most beautiful people in the world”)
and the slight catch in his voice–both of which have no
doubt endeared him to a legion of young admirers who have established
Josh-watch fanzine websites–Bell seems to have eluded
the perils of celebrity. His modesty alone distinguishes him
in the firmament of superstars. He is quietly thoughtful, generous
in crediting others, and respectful in asserting views on education
that may go against the grain. He defies stereotype. If he does
not really love certain pieces, he has said, he won’t
play them, no matter how well they might yield a dazzling performance.
playing the violin at four–but his parents didn’t
push. He is passionate about classical but loves crossover.
His bluegrass-inspired albums with the composer Edgar Meyer,
his Gershwin collaborations with composer John Williams, his
spectacular concerts and recordings of Leonard Bernstein’s
“West Side Story Suite,” where he joined forces
with arranger William Brohn–to name just a few–have
all become award-winning albums. Then there was the movie. In
2000 the composer John Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his
score of “The Red Violin,” thanked Bell for his
work on the film and for playing “like a god.” Though
Bell champions the music of living composers–he won the
2001Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist with an Orchestra for
his recording of the Nicholas Maw Violin Concerto–at heart
he is a Romantic traditionalist. His newest CD for Sony is a
knockout performance of the Beethoven (“the Holy Grail
of violin concertos”) and the Mendelssohn violin concertos,
with Sir Roger Norrington conducting the Salzburg Camerata,
for which Bell composed the cadenzas. In typical self-effacing
manner, Bell says he finally “felt ready” to tackle
the Beethoven. He speaks with diffidence and reverence of a
concert at Carnegie Hall in April 2003 which will feature the
Bruch violin concerto.
performing, and reaching an audience are integrally related
for Bell. Like Mozart, he says as an aside, he cares how his
work is received. This desire to connect with listeners is probably
at the heart of his popularity, particularly with the young.
Of course, having his picture on magazine covers doesn’t
hurt. There he is in Town and Country, sitting in a rowboat
in Central Park Lake, modeling a camel hair coat, in Music Magazine,
in Tennis Magazine (he was a finalist in a national competition
when he was 10 and cherishes his other stringed instrument,
an Agassi racket), and in Elle. He has also played competitive
basketball, and early on developed a “slight addiction”
to computer games, which has made him a hit with the techies.
beginning, which means Bloomington, Indiana, where Bell was
born and went to public school, musical life started early.
Yes, the story about his plucking rubber bands attached to a
dresser drawer when he was merely a toddler is true. His first
violin followed at the age of four: a 1/16th size instrument.
The prodigy syndrome can indeed be destructive, Bell says, but
he wouldn’t want to generalize. Though there was a piano
in his house (his mother played) he instinctively gravitated
to the violin (“my father’s favorite instrument”).
Both parents are psychologists and amateur musicians, and for
a while, his mother was his part-time manager. He speaks of
them as watchful but loving parents who gave him room to play,
in all senses of the word.
analytical, Bell trusts his instincts and heart. It took a mere
couple of minutes for him to fall deeply in love with the 1712
Stradivarius he recently bought for $4 million and which he
unabashedly plays on the roof of his downtown New York apartment.
Inside the apartment, it’s another matter, reflecting
his love of physics and math, video and computer games. He adores
this “stuff,” and it no surprise to learn that for
the last few years he’s been an adjunct professor at MIT,
where he is working in the Media Lab with colleagues on a computer-enhanced
hyperviolin, part of a wider “Toy Symphony” project
“to help children perform and compose music.” This
conjoining of creative and critical interests can be traced
not only to his parents but to Bell’s legendary teacher,
Joseph Gingold, with whom he started studying at the age of
12 and whom he refers to lovingly as a kind of “grandfather.”
Two years later, it was all acclaim: a debut at 14 with Riccardo
Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra and first place in Seventeen
Magazine/General Motors’ music competition. Soon to follow
would be a sensational debut at Carnegie Hall.
is a central concern for Bell. He cites the inner-city youngsters
he met in Boston–some had never seen a violin before and
were completely captivated at meeting a performer–a few
would hardly let him get away. Though he himself had been bored
in kindergarten and was finally skipped to first grade–“unheard
of at the time in Bloomington” –he is against promoting
accomplishment in ways that might turn out expert technicians
devoid of soul. He admires the Suzuki technique and uses some
Suzuki books, but he would prefer that the method also teach
children how to read notes.
as influence on him, he names the incomparable Gingold, mentor
par excellence, who set an example that music should be pleasure
and who encouraged the young Bell to take master classes abroad
so that he could hear what others had to say. But it was less
what Gingold said than what he elicited, Bell recalls. “He
never spoon fed anything, he made me think for myself, he didn’t
just tell, he showed by example.” The ideal mentor, for
Bell and maybe for anyone, a teacher who “sought to find
a player’s soul.” Under Gingold’s guidance
Bell came to believe, contrary to what is generally held, that
“children are very expressive” and capable of great
emotional depth when they play.
experience readied Bell for the joy, not just the necessity,
of the basic study that he found under the tutelage of Mimi
Zweig, young at the time, but supremely gifted in teaching etudes,
scales, the foundations. The focus of Bell’s teachers
was music, but the larger lessons resonate for him and should
not escape anyone interested in the education of the young.#
Ask not for whom the Bell tolls, he tolls for thee–on
his website for starters–www.joshuabell.com–and on
numerous and wonderful CDs.
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