Why is it that certain classical artists catch the public fancy and become a superstar while others, equally qualified and admired by the musical professionals, languish in relative obscurity? It is a mystery worthy of a sociologist's life work. Joshua Bell is one on whom the golden light of international stardom has rightfully shined and is one of a handful of classical artists who can sell out a large hall.
Born in 1967, he is handsome and still boyish, which adds to his popularity. However, the violinist now has children of his own. "I have as five year old and three-year-old twins," Bell says in a recent phone interview. "It makes travel for concerts a little more difficult. It is not as much fun to leave home now."
Of course, a big part of the growing Bell legend is that he is a truly great violinist and universally admired, even by other great violinists. Ever since he impressed the world in 1985 when he debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York City with the Saint Louis Symphony, he has been on top of the profession. Another part of the story, which comes through when you talk to him, is how unstar-like he is—just a regular guy who happens to play the violin.
"I like to play the virtuoso repertoire," he says, speaking about showy pieces like those of violinist/composer Paganini. "These sorts of bonbons used to be played a lot, but now we only play 'serious' music."
When asked why Bell hit so big with the general public, Alexander Kerr, co-concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony says: "I think that what makes Josh special as a violinist is that his musical vision, and how it is projected to his audience, is in no way impeded by any nerves or technical obstacles. In other words, he 'owns' the stage. He is always compelling and never, ever boring."
Maybe this explains it.
The "never, ever boring" Bell will take the stage on Monday evening as part of the Van Cliburn Foundation's Cliburn at the Bass series. His program is disappointingly conservative for an artist who has always played the works of living composers. He will start with Schubert's Sonatina in A minor D. 385, Op. posth. 137, No. 2. The most intriguing piece on the program is Richard Strauss' rarely heard Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 18. He will end with Prokofiev's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94, which was originally written for flute, and still works best that way in the minds of some. He will leave time at the end for the bonbons he so enjoys.
"Strauss is not one of my desert island composers," Bell says. "But I grew up with the [Jascha] Heifetz recording and now that I have learned it, it is one of my favorites."
The Schubert is a tuneful piece that should give Bell lots of opportunity to show off his gorgeous tone. The slow movement of the Strauss is also very melodic. Part of his secret is that he plays on a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin called the "Gibson ex-Huberman." It was made in 1713 during what is known as Antonio Stradivari's "Golden Era." But the violin is only a part of the story.
"He is a lyricist with a gorgeous tone, no matter what violin he is playing," says Gary Levinson, associate concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. "Even the virtuoso pieces are not about how fast he can play them, although he is impressive in that regard. It is about tone, color and phrasing."
He is now a conductor, haven taken over the musical directorship of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the first American and first person to be given the title since Sir Neville Marriner founded the group in 1958.
"In music, everything affects everything and I am a better musician because of conducting," Bell says. "I played Beethoven's violin concerto recently and my recording of his symphonies has made me think about the concerto differently."
While that may be true, and all of his musical experiences certainly help him to grow as an artist, Emanuel Borok, retired concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, summed up the Bell mystique:
"He is a true artist and poet who communicates his feelings and thoughts to an audience in a genuine and most captivating manner."
◊ Listen to a portion of the new ASMF Joshua Bell recording of the Beethoven Fourth and Seventh Symphonies:
◊ And here's a video for the Oscar-nominated song "Before My Time," from the documentary film Chasing Ice, which features Joshua Bell on violin. The vocalist: None other than actress Scarlett Johansson.