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New York City
October 2002
Joshua Bell: A Genius of Note
by Joan Baum, Ph.d.

The 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.

He started 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.

Composing, 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.

In the 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.

Sharply 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.

Education 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.

By far, 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.

The Gingold 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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