With his air of youthful vitality and lively stage presence, it’s easy to forget that Joshua Bell has been gracing the world’s concert platforms for nearly four decades. During that time, the Bloomington-born virtuoso has made the transition from gifted wunderkind and classical music poster boy to seasoned soloist and Music Director of one of the world’s most respected chamber orchestras, The Academy of St Martin in the Fields.
So, what makes him special? Quite a few things, actually. There are obvious attributes, such as technique, tone, musical intelligence, and sensitivity of phrasing, but then there are less definable qualities, like commitment, camaraderie, and pure onstage charisma. Seeing him on a recent Academy tour, viewers are often struck not just by the refined colors, precision, and carefully crafted flexibility in the playing but also the sheer volume of sound produced by such modest forces, much of which could be put down to the imagination and drive of its leader.
Communicating by nine-tenths body language and one-tenth sheer chutzpah, Bell is like the light socket the other musicians onstage plug into. No wonder the Academy sought him out to replace founder Sir Neville Marriner in 2011. Any ensemble would be lucky to be invited to feed off that energy. “Whether you like [my interpretation] or not, I play as if it’s life or death,” he told Limelight magazine in 2017. “Every day I give my one hundred percent, I put my entire person into making music.”
So too with his solo performances and chamber recitals. It’s a delicate tightrope act, but Bell manages to walk that fine line between showman and first among equals. His body language and facial expressivity say it all. Orchestras and ensemble partners invariably respond.
Bell recalls a relatively normal childhood, though violin lessons from the age of 4 suggest his considerable talent was always nurtured. At age 14, he appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti, and he made his Carnegie Hall debut at just 17 with the St. Louis Symphony. An 18-year-old Bell signed with Decca (he’s now exclusive to Sony), and over the years he’s been nominated for six Grammy® awards. His repertoire ranges from The Four Seasons through the Romantic greats and includes contemporary works often written especially for him. In 1998 he recorded John Corigliano’s soundtrack for The Red Violin, which won the composer an Oscar and made Bell a household name.
A special musician deserves a special instrument, and since 2001 Bell has played the Huberman Stradivarius, a “golden era” violin notable for the contrast between its gleaming top, especially in harmonics, and a more earthy sound lower down. Famously stolen from a previous owner twice, there’s a fascinating documentary about its theft, return, and Bell’s subsequent purchase.
Another film, Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary, follows the famous 2007 Washington Post experiment where Bell dressed down to perform incognito as a subway station busker. Captured by hidden camera, he was recognized by just a single passerby. While the 45-minute performance earned Bell just $32.17, the journalist behind the stunt was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
Over the years, he’s appeared three times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, featured on six Live From Lincoln Center specials, and even popped up in the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. His commitment to bringing classical music to new audiences has seen him collaborate with artists from Renée Fleming and Chick Corea to Wynton Marsalis and Sting.
If that kind of profile is rare these days in classical music, so too are artists as unique as Joshua Bell.