Joshua Bell

Pushing beyond the traditional boundaries

By Naila Francis

Joshua Bell can’t duck the distinction. The 34-year-old Bloomington, Ind., native was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” two years ago and also has garnered attention as one of Glamour magazine’s “It Men of the Millennium.”

But the honors — while flattering — are only significant if they increase exposure of another kind.

Bell, an internationally acclaimed violinist, is willing to play up his handsome All-American boy-next-door mage if it encourages a younger generation to appreciate the music of the violin.

“It’s not the worst thing in the world for People magazine to pick you for an issue like that,” he says. “What makes me uncomfortable is when I got to a city, and in a brochure, they’ll mention only People magazine and have a picture of me in leather pants. It just looks kind of cheesy.

“But I also want younger people to come to the concerts and be interested in what I do, so as long as it’s in the context of what I really do, then it’s not so bad.”

What Bell does is make music that is exquisite not merely because of the obvious passion and intellect with which he plays but also because of his determination to push his instrument’s traditional boundaries.

The Grammy Award-winning virtuoso will appear in two area performances — one at the Academy of Music Saturday as part of the Philadelphia Orchestra Anniversary Concert and another at the Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem Feb. 8 — with “Tom Taylor,” the Gibson Stradivarius violin that has generated almost as much attention as the star himself since coming into his ownership last year.

Bell performed the Oscar-winning score for the movie, “The Red Violin,” and also worked as artistic adviser and body double on the 1999 film, which followed the path of a 17th-century violin through five owners.

Now, he can lay claim to his own “red violin,” a 1713 Strad — as concert performers and collectors dub the violins made by Antonius Stradivarius — with a history worthy of its own film.

Named after an early owner, Alfred Gibson, the violin  was stolen twice from a future owner, Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, first in his hotel room in Vienna in 1919 and later from his Carnegie Hall dressing room in 1936.

It remained missing for 51 years before violinist Julian Altman, dying of cancer, revealed to his wife in 1985 that he had stolen the violin. The instrument was offered to Lloyd’s of London and later sold to British violinist Norbert Brainin in 1988.

Bell actually played a few notes on the violin when he performed at a concert with Brainin five years before he would buy it.

“I thought it was one of the greatest violins I had ever tried,” he recalls, “but then I gave it back and didn’t think much about it.”

Then last year, he learned the violin was for sale while passing by the shop of famed London violin dealer J & A Beare’s.

He innocently asked to play a few notes.

“Within a few minutes or even a few seconds,” he says, “I just realized I’ve got to have this violin. It really is a magical kind of chemistry, similar to falling in love with someone. It just did whatever I wanted it to do and responded to everything I did. It’s mine and I’m still in love with it.”

The Strad may wield a mystical power all its own, but Bell has been working his own magic long before he acquired the notorious instrument.

He received his first violin when he was 4. By 12, he was studying with renowned violinist Josef Gingold — himself once a tutor with some of the European violin masters of the 20th century — and at 14, he won a Seventeen magazine/General Motors music competition that launched his career.

From his orchestral debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at that age, Bell has gone on to perform with some of the world’s top symphony orchestras.

He has recorded more than two dozen albums, appeared on numerous television shows and was one of the first classical musicians to be the focus of a music video broadcast on VH1.

Bell won his first Grammy Award last year for his recording of a violin concerto written for him by English composer Nicholas Maw.

This year his latest recording, “Bernstein: West Side Story Suite,” has been nominated in the “Best Classical Crossover Recording” category. Last week, “Iris” — his first soundtrack since “The Red Violin” — was released for the upcoming film about English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench.

Following on the heels of other “crossover” projects such as the bluegrass foray “Short Trip Home,” “Gershwin Fantasy” and “The Red Violin” soundtrack, the “West Side Story” album continues Bell’s tradition of taking the violin in new and dynamic directions.

That he effortlessly straddles the line between the sometimes esoteric classical and more contemporary pop culture worlds is testament to his visionary artistry and expansive talents.

“I’ve always loved ‘West Side Story,’ ” he says. “I consider that to be one of the great American operas of the 20th century, even though it was basically a Broadway recording. I think it’s just great music. It is music I believe in.”

And Bell insists that he believes in whatever piece he plays, no matter how frivolous some of his more unexpected projects may seem to the classically trained ear. Gingold ingrained in him from early on a caution against pretension.

“Tuneful and honest music, that’s what he’s all about,” says Bell. “As mush as I’d like to say I’m being an ambassador to bring people in from here and there, I just play music that I like to do. It just happens to spread out from there.”

His self-proclaimed “own worst critic,” he is always in pursuit of the next challenge.

“Your imagination always has to be ahead of you,” he says. “The dangerous thing is when you get satisfied and stop challenging yourself. That’s when, artistically, things can suffer.”

– The Intelligencer