October 2023

Arts & Letters

His Bach materials: Violinist Joshua Bell

By Miriam Cosic

Joshua Bell performs at the White House in Washington, DC, June 22, 2023. © Al Drago / Pool via CNP / AdMedia / Newscom / Alamy Live News

The latest work of the American classical music superstar – famed for his subway busking experiment – is a collaboration with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra

“He was a bit of a party boy,” a former artistic director of a leading European orchestra told us, on condition of strict anonymity. American trumpeter and composer Chris Botti said: “I first met Josh when he was 16 and he was a legend in Bloomington, Indiana. I’d been going to Indiana University … The first time I saw him haul into the school of music in this very fancy, brand-new Porsche 911, I said to myself, Man, that kid’s going places. And voila.”

Yes, Joshua Bell went places. Now 55, still with his boyish fringe and cute grin, married to opera singer Larisa Martinez and with three teenage sons from his first relationship, the American led the UK Classic FM list of the 25 greatest violinists in history (granted it was alphabetical).

A prize-winning soloist, ensemble musician and chamber music leader, and more, Bell is constantly on the go. He is away from home 250 days a year and told Forbes, “I enjoy the adrenaline, I seem to thrive on that way of life.” When we spoke, he was in a taxi to the airport en route from his home outside Manhattan to his job in London.

He is music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra in London and artist-in-residence with broadcaster NDR in Hamburg for 2023–24, and still appears regularly with the most important orchestras in the world and in performances with pianist and friend Jeremy Denk. He was a member of Barack Obama’s President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and, in 2016, took part in the US government’s inaugural cultural mission to Cuba.

Bell is visiting Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney in October with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The glorious orchestra may have been famous for helping the revival of baroque music in the late 20th century, but the program here is strictly classical and romantic with a couple of 20th-century moments thrown in. Like the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti, Bell conducts from the lead violinist’s position, and will be performing three great violin concerti: the Bach, the Beethoven and the lovely Mendelssohn.

It’s only the second time Australians will get to hear him. Critics went wild for Bell during his visit in 2017, as they tend to everywhere. “Dazzling”, “star power” and “brilliant” are the sorts of words used when describing him. One critic called his style “aristocratic”. The influential New Yorker critic Alex Ross kept it cool, as is his wont: “a former teen-dream prodigy who has matured into a distinctive artist”. Indeed, his performances are rich and both highly intellectual and deeply emotional. Never over-dramatic, his precision can be almost unnerving. Bell himself has repeatedly called playing music a “life or death” activity. And Interview magazine has said his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live”.

Born in 1967 and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Bell started playing the violin from the age of four. His parents – both psychologists, his father a university professor and his mother a therapist – bought his first instrument and organised lessons when they saw him tying rubber bands between the drawers of the chest in his bedroom and moving the drawers in and out to change the pitch and reproduce tunes he’d heard.

He grew up surrounded by music: his mother and his three sisters all played instruments. Before long, Bell was being taught by the famous violinist Josef Gingold. He knew by his teens that he wanted to be a professional and studied hard, though not to the exclusion of video games and tennis – he even placed in a national tennis tournament when he was 10. His outstanding talent, however, was obvious. The child prodigy performed solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti when he was just 14, two years before he was cruising around campus in that Porsche. He was soon performing with the finest orchestras and conductors.

Bell signed his first recording contract with Decca when he was 18, performing an enormous repertoire with the label before switching to Sony Classics, a far more adventurous company, in 1996. He has won a fistful of awards over the years, including the US national Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in 2007. He plays the Gibson ex Huberman violin, handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713 during what was considered the great instrument-maker’s finest period. Bell sold his first Stradivarius and had to borrow quite a bit on top of it to buy this one, reportedly for more than US$3.5 million.

He has written in the classical music magazine EarRelevant describing the story of the instrument’s original owner, Bronisław Huberman, a Jewish-Polish violinist who arranged exit visas for Jewish artists to escape Nazi Germany and establish an orchestra in Palestine. Huberman’s beginnings mirrored his. “He was a child prodigy revered for his remarkable virtuosity and daring interpretations,” Bell wrote.

Once he became as celebrated, Bell wasn’t content to simply rotate the globe for guest appearances. He has enjoyed pushing boundaries. One was a dare he took up from The Washington Post in 2007. The idea was for him to busk incognito in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC, during a busy Friday morning peak hour and see what the response would be from passers-by. The date chosen was only three days after his appearance filled Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Despite his reputation, Bell said he was anxious before he started up in the subway. “When you play for ticketholders,” he told the Post afterwards, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence…” He played for 43 minutes, beginning and ending with the “Chaconne” from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, which he calls, “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history – and one of the most difficult”.

One stallholder nearby bitterly resented “the noise” Bell made. Everyone else more-or-less ignored him, apart from several children whose parents had to drag them past, and one or two commuters who threw a few coins into his open violin case without stopping. Only one man, who had studied violin as a child, stopped to listen, riveted. One woman, who recognised him and appreciated his presence, left a $20 bill. The exercise made for  a Pulitzer Prize–winning story and a documentary.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cell phone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished,” Bell told the Post. “I started to appreciate any acknowledgement, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” The reporter remarked: “This is from a man whose talents can command $1000 a minute.”

In 2011, Bell became only the second music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields since it was founded in 1958 by the English violinist and great conductor Neville Marriner. Bell was an old friend of the chamber orchestra, having made his first recording with it when just 18 years old. “Since 1986, when Joshua first played with the ensemble, I recognised in him a kindred spirit,” Marriner said when the American took over the position. The orchestra is housed in the ancient church that gives it its name, built in its current form in 1722, across the road from the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.

The founding of the academy wasn’t so surprising – the church was already well known for its music, hosting day and evening concerts. (It was second on this music student’s to-do list on her first trip overseas.) St Martin now boasts a huge and polished discography, with more than 500 recordings over the years, and conducts a constant touring program. Bell’s load is shared by the excellent Murray Perahia as principal guest conductor, whose position came first.

Bell is very active across all sorts of social and commercial media, including a website, YouTube channel and Instagram account. The projects in his hectic schedule included an album and series of experimental videos in 2009, in which he collaborated with equally famous colleagues from a variety of genres: pop, jazz and classical. The videos, available on YouTube, make for intriguing entertainment in themselves. His collaborators included Sting, singer-songwriter Josh Groban and sitar player Anoushka Shankar, with whom he performs a piece written for them by her famous father, Ravi. “It’s a nice way to share music and bring people to something they wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to,” Bell has said of the project. Not all of the videos work brilliantly, as crossovers go, but they are made essential listening by his violin. They also contain fascinating discussions of his approach to music-making, including how and why he renovated his New York home for musical soirees with friends, and how he has met and collaborated with various sorts of musicians over the years.

His YouTube channel is currently filled with videos of him performing the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto, based on a tragic Chinese love story. It was written by composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao in 1959 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, when they were hoping to bring Western and Chinese music together. It was originally written for Western instruments, though it is barely known outside China. Now Bell has teamed up with the 85-piece Singapore Chinese Orchestra with a score rewritten to include traditional Chinese instruments.

Bell says he was first intrigued by China after playing with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in Hong Kong, when he was 18, and made a quick trip over the border to visit another Chinese city. “[A]nd then in the last, you know, 20 years or so, I go regularly to Beijing and Shanghai and Gwangju and some other places. And there’s a big appreciation for classical music,” he told Classical Radio Boston recently.

Nonetheless, he lamented not being able to linger when on the road, to just hang out with local musicians and experience their cultures more. “There’s often very little time to really explore outside of one’s bubble when you’re just trying to take a nap after being jetlagged and play the concert and get ready for the one the next day, and the travel, you know. There’s not always a lot of time to do much culturally outside of finding the best restaurant you can possibly find.”

The less-appealing side of an open-hearted, adrenaline-driven, globe-trotting musical life.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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