The chart-topping violinist reflects on music, family and
fatherhood as he looks forward to performances for television, Israeli
audiences and an expanded family.
For a few minutes at least, violin virtuoso Joshua Bell relaxes in his New York apartment. Zealously promoting his new CD, Joshua Bell at Home With Friends, he has been up since 5 A.M. for a taping of the Today show and by nightfall will be in Los Angeles for the Tonight Show.
His constant companion, the "Gibson Ex-Huberman" 1713 Stradivarius
violin—valued at $4 million—is packed away, but he will soon take it on
the road for concerts in Chicago, Stockholm, Moscow, Berlin and Vienna.
This schedule, Bell pronounces, is part of "a typical month."
Critics have characterized the 42-year-old's playing by superlatives
like luxuriant, sumptuous, ardent, and heart-melting. When he plays, he
moves his upper body with the sensuous grace of a dancer, sometimes
looking intently at the violin, sometimes closing his eyes, focused on
telling a story, sweet or sorrowful. Closer to the human voice than any
other instrument, the sound of the violin "goes right to the soul,"
It is hard not to be dazzled by Bell's talent; his good looks don't
hurt, either. In a gray sweater, black pants and black boots, he is a
boyish cross between Paul McCartney and David Cassidy. Teenagers wait
for him backstage after concerts, hoping for photos and autographs, and
more mature musicians swoon over his masterful song interpretations.
Over the past two decades, he has amassed awards too numerous to
detail, including a Grammy for his recording of Nicolas Maw's "Violin
Concerto," which the composer wrote especially for him, and an Avery
Fisher Prize in 2007 for outstanding achievement. He performed on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film The Red Violin and the Holocaust-related Defiance. He has also appeared on Sesame Street and was even the subject of a question on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Bell's love of violin began when his parents bought him a junior
instrument at the age of 4, after they noticed him replicating
classical tunes with rubber bands he had stretched around the handles
of his dresser drawers—one of his earliest memories. Though he hates
the word "crossover," his willingness to experiment with different
styles has spread his fame beyond the classical music world. His newest
CD, which reached the top of Billboard's classical charts
within days of its fall release, is the latest of his more than 35
recordings. On it, Bell performs duets with musicians from diverse
genres: a stirring rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy"
with trumpeter and former Indiana University classmate Chris Botti; a
tender 16th-century love song with Sting; a lyrical "Cinema Paradiso"
with Josh Groban; and "My Funny Valentine" with Broadway and television
star Kristen Chenoweth. Bell's range shines in unexpected partnerships,
matching the Latin beat of Tiempo Libre; the bluegrass rhythms strummed
by double bassist Edgar Meyer (another former classmate) and the
entrancing ragas of Anoushka Shankar's sitar. A televised concert,
airing January 21 on PBS, will feature Bell performing at Lincoln
Center with Chenoweth, baritone Nathan Gunn, pianist and composer
Marvin Hamlisch, musician Frankie Moreno and Tiempo Libre.
"Joshua has helped promulgate the cause of great music," says Steve
Epstein, who produced the new CD as well as other Bell albums. "He's
forthcoming and disarming and has done a lot to attract those who may
think of classical music as elitist and not immediately accessible."
During his work on this album, Epstein says he was amazed by Bell's
versatility and ability to adapt to so many styles. He adds that Bell
is "very modest for someone of his talent and ability. He's very secure
in what he does."
The CD was inspired by the informal "musicales" that Bell holds
frequently at home, modeled after family soirees during his childhood
in Bloomington, Indiana: His two sisters, parents and cousins all
played together during holidays, a combination of cello, violin, flute,
piano and clarinet. He spent three years renovating and designing a
living space that can easily morph into a performance area for the
intimate, freewheeling salons. The warm wood floors call to mind the
maple and ebony of the Stradivarius, balanced by contemporary
charcoal-gray sofas. Friends and guests sit on chairs, on pillows on
the floor, or line the staircase up to a glass-enclosed balcony
overlooking the living room and a roof garden.
Though he is hardly a folksy Chagallian fiddler, Bell does continue
the tradition of Jewish violinists—Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz,
Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. "At one time, almost
all the great violinists were Jewish, so it was something Jewish kids
could aspire to and emulate," says Bell, who considers himself secular,
with a cultural attachment to Judaism.
Its eclectic range aside, does the violin have a "Jewish" sound?
"Yeah," Bell answers unhesitatingly, "it does. There's something about
the violin that's such a part of Jewish culture. There's an old saying
in Israel: If you see someone walking down the street and they don't
have a violin case, it's because they play the piano."
Even Bell's chosen instrument continues the Jewish chain. Once owned
by 19th-century violinist Alfred Gibson, the violin became the prized
possession of Polish-born Bronislaw Huberman, the Israel Philharmonic
founder who performed Brahms' Violin Concerto on it at age 14
for Brahms himself. In 1936, the violin was stolen from Huberman's
dressing room at Carnegie Hall by a minor New York violinist. It was
recovered after a deathbed confession in 1985, and in 2001, Bell
discovered it was about to be sold to a German industrialist. "I was
practically in tears," recalls Bell on his Web site
(www.joshuabell.com). He sold his own Tom Taylor Stradivarius for a
little more than $2 million and borrowed the rest. Bell couldn't stand
to see the instrument go to an investor, whose interest would be in
profit, rather than having it be in the hands of a musician who could
let it continue to be played as it was meant to.
"I'm proud to have the violin Huberman owned," Bell says. "It's the
most amazing-sounding violin I have ever heard. I mostly have a love
relationship with it—sometimes love-hate when it's not cooperating."
Bell's Poland performance in October took place in Huberman's
birthplace of Czestochowa; the city's Philharmonic Hall is the former
site of the New Synagogue. His Warsaw concert raised funds for the
Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to be built on the site of the
former Jewish ghetto. "My grandmother was from Belarus," says Bell; his
maternal grandfather was a sabra. "Being in that area, there's
something that feels like home to me." Bell also performed at the White
House last November, and he is looking forward to a series of six
concerts in Jerusalem in May, when he plans to visit his Israeli
Charlie Hamlen, Bell's first manager and founder of IMG Artists,
says Bell "connects to what the composer wants—and makes it happen.
That complete connection is rare. His music-making has real character.
You feel as though you are hearing the music for the first time, and if
[it's] not the first time, it stirs you in a different way."
Amidst a collection of autographed photographs of maestros that hang
on the wall of his library, Bell points out his teacher, Josef Gingold,
who was also Jewish. Many of the photos originally resided in Gingold's
studio. Bell studied with Gingold for nine years, from the age of 12.
In an April 2004 Readers Digest article, Bell wrote
touchingly of the musician: "I had never met anyone who found music so
fun. He would play two parts of a string quartet at once. He laughed
and laughed, and I left those lessons buzzing.... My teacher taught me
that music could be more than a hobby. It could be a life.... He helped
me create a very personal relationship with music but he did not teach
me to play every note.... He became the grandfather I didn't have."
The Bell family moved from New York to a 20-acre former farm with a
1830s log house in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1967. Bell's father,
psychoanalyst Alan Bell, took a job as research psychologist in the
area of human sexuality at the Kinsey Institute, on the campus of
Indiana University; his mother, Shirley, has degrees in counseling.
Though the Bells were both musical, they had no idea that Indiana had a
renowned music school with faculty members like Gingold. But Bell's
relationship with Gingold almost didn't happen. The day before his
first major solo recital at the university at age 12, Bell
sliced his chin open while tossing a boomerang. "The ER doctor stitched
me up," recalls Bell. Two inches to the left and I couldn't have held
my violin. But I played, wounded. Someone convinced Gingold to come to
the recital. He liked what he heard."
Despite his prodigious talent, Bell's parents encouraged a normal
childhood. Gifted in many areas, he played sports, computer and video
games. Because he learned quickly and easily, he didn't spend too much
time practicing violin. Gingold's philosophy was equally relaxed: When
Bell's mother told him her son had spent all day playing video games
instead of practicing, he was "secretly pleased," according to Bell.
Nonetheless, Bell won a national talent competition that earned him
a solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 14 and
catapulted him to fame. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985, his
first classical recording at 18. After Bell moved to New York at the
age of 21, he didn't see Gingold as much as he would have liked. He
visited him on New Years Day 1995, bringing a photograph to autograph.
"In his hand he had one last gift for me—a rare picture of Niccolo
Paganini, the crown jewel of his studio collection," writes Bell. "The
next day he had a stroke. He died two weeks later."
Bell's 2-year-old son, Josef, with former girlfriend Lisa
Matricardi, is named after Gingold. He and Matricardi are still close
friends and the two are expecting twins in March. Marriage would be a
challenge, Bell says candidly, noting that he is on the road 250 days a
year. "It's not easy to have a Leave It to Beaver family." He
recently brought Josef to a dress rehearsal with the New York
Philharmonic. "In the middle of the rehearsal, I heard, ‘Dada!'" Bell
says and laughs. "I won't push him into the music world—well, maybe I
will push him a little. I want him to have music in his life whether or
not he becomes a musician. He will no doubt experience how much joy I
get out of music."
"Josh loves to master his environment," says his mother, Shirley
Bell. "Everything becomes a challenge: That's what he looks for in
life." A natural athlete with "consistency, focus and determination,"
in his mother's words, he placed fourth in a national tennis
championship at age 10—without a lesson—among other accomplishments.
While already a soloist and performer with the local symphony as a
child, he declared in a radio interview that he wanted to be either a
scientist or detective. He took great interest in physics and
technology, surprising his parents when he settled on music. His résumé
highlights his world championship title for the computer pinball game,
Crystal Caliburn, in which the Knights of the Round Table pursue the
Holy Grail, and his work on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology
project to develop a computer-enhanced "hyperviolin," a high-tech
electronic instrument played with an electronic bow.
"I want to do everything," says Bell. "I want to try everything.
Travel everywhere I can. You only get one shot at life so you should
live every day like it may be your last. It's clichéd but not everyone
lives by that." He is self-admittedly passionate—"obsessive by
nature"—these days about food. He has been an avid golfer and now
"lives for" Sunday football. His fun-loving nature is evident when he
drives his deep purple Porsche. From his father, he absorbed an intense
work ethic; from his mother, an attraction to risk and, he says, a
"slight gambling addiction." To be a musician, he notes, "you have to
think like a youthful person and not lose your sense of curiosity and
Probably his most well-known adventure was the social experiment he participated in at the request of Washington Post
columnist Gene Weingarten on January 12, 2007. For 43 minutes, in the
middle of the morning rush hour, Bell played six classical pieces at
the D.C. Metro L'Enfant Plaza station. Of the 1,097 people who passed
by, only 7 stopped to listen and 27 donated money, earning Bell a grand
total of $32.17. Weingarten's subsequent story, "Pearls Before
Breakfast," garnered a Pulitzer Prize. Bell says he learned that when
he plays for ticket-holders, he is already validated; in the subway he
was without a frame: "Performances need to be in a specific context to
be fully appreciated," he notes.
Bell's musical risk-taking doesn't exactly make him Evel Knievel, he
says self-deprecatingly. He is skilled at improvising cadenzas,
embellishing and adding ornaments to freshen and enliven the familiar.
His collaborations are adventures of a sort, too, he says: "There's a
misconception about other kinds of music. I thought I had good rhythm
until I played with Edgar Meyer. His precision made me sharpen my whole
sense of time. I can bring that back to classical music." It's good to
remember, he says, "that the essence of music is not necessarily the
dotted i's and crossed t's." He stops, "I don't want to reinforce the
stereotype of classical music as rigid and stuffy. We get bogged down
in details and playing with other musicians is freeing."
His latest adventure, besides parenting, is teaching, as a faculty
member at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. Starting with
small doses, he foresees playing a new role in the future: that of
mentor. "It's like having good parents and wanting to be a parent
yourself," he says. "I want to pass on the musical values I've