Joshua Bell at the Strathmore

Rescheduled to Wednesday February 2, 2011

At the outset, it needs to be said that I am not an expert or aficionado. I can’t even read music. But I think I can listen to it.

We’re talking about classical music here, of course—sonatas and symphonies Brahms, Beethoven and Bell. In particular, we’re talking about classical violinist Joshua Bell. Barring older legends like Itzhak Perlman, he may be the finest violinist of his generation. More than one critic or fan has called him a rock star of classical music, because they can’t think of anything else to say.

When it comes to the violin, this is a little bit of a journey for me. In Germany, where I was a boy, the violin is a revered instrument, and the people who make them and play them are revered. But it was the opening concert of the Music Center at Strathmore, with master Perlman himself, which got me on the path to the music of violinists.

Strathmore, with its marvelous acoustics, is a wonderful place to experience music, and it was the perfect place to hear Perlman. Being there felt like being in a cathedral.

I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember wanting to hear much more. And not just Perlman, but those who followed—the younger violinists you hear about, whose pictures you find in the season programs of our cultural institutions: Sophie-Mutter, Hahn, Joshua Bell.

So here we are again: anticipating Bell’s performance at the Music Center at Strathmore (January 26) with Sam Haywood on piano, playing Brahms, Schubert and Grieg—works Bell describes as: “A challenge, a test.”

On the phone in a conference call interview with Bell, reporter and writers from all over the country, some obviously more knowledgeable than others, are taking turns asking questions.

Bell gives a friendly and comfortable vibe as he patiently addresses each question, many of which he’s no doubt heard numerous times before. He is 43 now, and in pictures and videos looks unforgivably boyish and handsome, unlike the masters of old. His looks are an attraction, but they would be of no help if he were all thumbs. He’s thoughtful, with a quiet sense of humor. He’s been a super nova of a violinist and performer for a few decades now, and he obviously appreciates the rewards of the hard work, the touring, the recordings, the appearances and the fame. He’s not an Access Hollywood kind of guy, but like some of his contemporaries in the field—Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Hillary Hahn— he occupies the territory of musical prodigy and ambassador, crossing the line where classical music creates full concert halls and major commercial success.

And yet, he’s a small-town guy from Indiana, a self-described “cultural Jew,” a Midwestern kid fulfilling a musical destiny once dominated by Europeans, and now being pushed by young and talented Asian prodigies. He seems to have given considerable thought to what and who he is, where the music is going and his future in it.

“I’m at an age where you have to think about things like that,” he said. “You know the arena of teaching, of writing and composing, of spreading out and doing other things, of pushing the envelope. Classical music is a world where you leave a mark, not just in recording and performing. And I like to explore other kinds of music—bluegrass and jazz—and mix things and explore the boundaries, and where you can break that down.”

In his last few recordings—The Romantic Violin, Voice of the Violin, and his last CD, the deceptively titled At Home With Friends—you can see that process working.

The first of the trio is music that sweeps you away, that requires strength and delicacy. When you listen to it, it’s like listening to strands of beautiful hair transformed into strings and bow, notably in works by the violin legend Fritz Kreisler.

Voice of the Violin, which I listen to on mornings when I’ve slept fitfully, is a work that’s already taking a step ahead; they are musical arrangements of works meant to be sung. In his notes, Bell says, “it was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the rich treasury of music written for the voice.” The most recognizable work is Ave Maria, a work so soothing that it feels like cool water on a feverish brow.

At Home With Friends is an entirely different matter.

Some home. Some friends. In the questioning interviews, Bell talks a lot about what he calls his home, a nice little pad in Manhattan, a penthouse which occupies the top two floors of what was once a manufacturing plant in the Flatiron District. Home includes a performance hall where, on a video for the album, young men and women can be seen applauding as their host plays.

“I’ve always wanted something like that, a place where you can get together with your friends, play with them and for them—and a kind of salon for music.” This turned into getting together with people like rock-pop star Sting singing Come Again; trumpeter Chris Botti, who has known Bell since high school days, doing “I Loves You Porgy” with Bell; Kristen Chenoweth singing My Funny Valentine, which may rank as one of the best versions ever; Josh Groban singing Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s also a way of stretching the boundaries, working with people that are somewhat removed from traditional classical music,” he added.

With classical musicians, long, long hours of practice makes perfect. “But it’s not just about playing perfectly,” Bell said. “You need—I need—to understand a piece of music before I’ll play it. I need to be sure I know it to do it justice.”

Obviously, Bell is hugely popular. And he’s not easily daunted. Several years ago, he played for about an hour at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station during rush hour, to see if anybody would actually listen to the music of a world class musician. It was all grist for a prize-winning Washington Post article, but it was also something of an education.

“Mostly, people just walked by,” he said. “They were going to work, in a hurry, and didn’t pay attention. Some people did. They stopped and listened. I think I made around thirty dollars. It could humble you, but it was in the nature of an experiment. Yes, it was a very expensive violin I was playing [he uses a 1731 Stradivarius—meaning that it was made in 1731]. I didn’t pretend to be anybody but myself. I wasn’t a homeless man. I think it shows how busy our lives are.”

Even Bell playing Brahms proved not to be a distraction for most of the people.

Watching Bell on video in close-up is telling. No question, there is an other worldly talent on display when you listen to him. But he’s also an engaging, fully engaged, charismatic, physical player; the body contorts, he becomes a force in black—his usual dress code on stage—often working up a sweat, the hair flying, the eyes intense.

Listen to him talk to us reporter folks though, and you think you hear a little bit of that boy prodigy who’s been to all the places that are like concert castles, traveled the world, reads and sees himself named one of the most beautiful people by People Magazines, lives high up in Manhattan, etc. I don’t mean to suggest he’s somehow still starry-eyed. Rather, he respects where he is, wonders about where he’s going and always plays with beauty and passion.

Joshua Bell will be performing at the Strathmore on Wednesday, February 2nd, at 8pm. For information, Click here

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