The Man With The Violin
Violinist Joshua Bell
At least once a day, someone brings up The Washington Post to Joshua Bell.
Yes, people are still talking about the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning story in which the newspaper and Bell posed an experiment: Place one of the world’s most celebrated violinists in a D.C. Metro station, have him play and see how many people recognize his stultifying ability and stop to listen instead of rushing through life.
We’ll let you look up the story to find out what happened (it’s now also a children’s book called The Man with the Violin).
But Bell, for one, is growing a little tired of it.
“As fun as it was, I’m sort of waiting for it to pass,” he said recently on a phone call from New York. But, not wanting to sound ungrateful for the tremendous visibility it brought him, he added, “For some people, though, that was the first they heard of me, so sometimes we get people coming to a concert that had never been to a classical concert before.”
‘I’VE BEEN PLAYING BACH SINCE 11’
What those newcomers will inevitably experience is the Indiana native – still Tom Cruise-handsome at 46 and usually clad in casual black onstage – racing through the rigorous musical exercises crafted by Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi.
For his Sept. 20 concert with the Richmond Symphony at the Carpenter Theatre at CenterStage – opening night of the season – Bell will perform the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor with Steven Smith conducting.
It’s a piece that Bell says most orchestras know, so his preparation with the Richmond musicians will be minimal.
Bell usually plays about 150 dates per year, and his fall will include a Kennedy Center show the night after Richmond as well as an extensive West Coast run.
This autumn will also bring the release of a Bach album recorded with The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Bell just completed a three-year stint as music director at the academy and is signing a new three-year contract to return.
“I’m still loving the relationship and having a ball. It’s been one of the most exciting things in my musical life,” he said.
The Bach violin concertos are especially meaningful to Bell because it marks the first time he’s committed Bach to a recording and also, “I’ve been playing it since my first recital at the age of 11.”
‘INTO A DIFFERENT WORLD’
Fans can also catch him on HBO in October in an episode of Masterclass, the documentary series that pairs world-class artists (Placido Domingo and Edward Albee were recently spotlighted) with an ambitious and talented group of teenagers for a hands-on mentoring session.
“I thought it would be fun to play with them, so I invited 10 kids to play Mendelssohn’s Octet with me and some to play the Bach concerto. We rehearsed in my home in New York and did a concert there, and then we went to London and did the same thing in an old rock club. It was like reality TV with the cameras following us around for a week,” Bell said of the April taping.
Not that he needs to increase his schedule, but Bell also keeps his musical antenna raised for any potential soundtrack work (“Before My Time,” a song he performed with Scarlett Johansson in the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, was nominated for an Academy Award), as well as interesting collaborations.
He’s already cross-pollinated with Josh Groban, Sting and Bela Fleck, among others, and tags his 1999 collaboration with bluegrass upright bassist Edgar Meyer as one his favorite because “it really took me into a different world.” But for now, Bell will maintain his hectic schedule – “Getting on stage keeps my heart pumping,” he joked about his secret to looking so youthful – and brace himself for the inevitable daily question about a Metro stop in D.C.