Joshua Bell is pas­sion­ate about his Stradi­var­ius as well as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

Even when he’s not play­ing, Joshua Bell likes to keep an eye on his vi­o­lin. Which is un­der­stand­able: when your in­stru­ment is a Stradi­var­ius that was made in 1713 and stolen twice from its pre­vi­ous owner, and which you bought for a cool $4 mil­lion, you would be in­clined to bring it along with you to in­ter­views too. Lit­tle won­der, then, that hav­ing checked out of his room in a plush ho­tel off Lon­don’s Ox­ford Street, and af­ter tak­ing a seat in an arm­chair in the lobby, the Amer­i­can vir­tu­oso slides his vi­o­lin, in its tough cus­tom-made case, be­hind his feet on the mar­ble floor un­der­neath him.

“I do a lot of my prac­tice in ho­tel rooms,” says 49-year-old Bell, who has kept up a pun­ish­ing tour sched­ule of about 150 con­certs a year for decades. “Oc­ca­sion­ally I’ll get a call from the front desk telling me that some­one has com­plained.” He pauses. “Luck­ily that doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten.”

Only the most cloth-eared of guests would even con­sider com­plain­ing about a noise made by Bell. The Bloom­ing­ton, In­di­ana-raised vi­olin­ist is one of the most pop­u­lar clas­si­cal mu­si­cians of his era, a for­mer child prodigy with fault­less tech­nique and a gift for coax­ing in­tense emo­tion from a reper­toire that spans Brahms to Vi­valdi, Bruch to Tchaikovsky and be­yond.

His mega-sell­ing record­ing cat­a­logue has brought him a Grammy, an Emmy, a Mer­cury Prize and a Gramo­phone Award; he has col­lab­o­rated with stars in­clud­ing St­ing, coun­try singer Al­i­son Krauss and Grammy-win­ning banjo player Bela Fleck, per­formed be­fore three US pres­i­dents and on movie sound­tracks in­clud­ing, most fa­mously, the 1999 Os­car-win­ning film The Red Vi­o­lin.

“I want to thank Joshua Bell,” said the film’s sound­track com­poser John Corigliano at the podium to ac­cept best orig­i­nal score, “for play­ing it like a god.”

In a few hours Bell will be back home in New York, in the spa­cious Man­hat­tan apart­ment he co-de­signed with ar­chi­tect Charles Rose, com­plete with li­brary, rooftop out­door shower and long black bench shaped like the fin­ger­board on a vi­o­lin; a mini con­cert hall with a stage cur­tain and state-of-the-art acous­tics and a me­dia room with a pro­jec­tor screen for watch­ing movies and NFL foot­ball (while his team is the In­di­anapo­lis Colts, this morn­ing he was up un­til 5am watch­ing a New York Giants match at a casino in Le­ices­ter Square).

“I don’t like be­ing away for more than two weeks at a time, es­pe­cially since I have three kids.” Bell has a 10-year-old son, Josef, and twin seven-old boys, Ben­jamin and Sa­muel, with his ex-girl­friend, vi­olin­ist Lisa Ma­tri­cardi, all of whom where con­ceived by mu­tual agree­ment af­ter the cou­ple broke up; he has said he is too no­madic to com­mit to a full-time re­la­tion­ship. His chil­dren live a cou­ple of blocks away; he likes to zoom be­tween their homes on a scooter.

When he’s at home, he loves to en­ter­tain: “I have these house soirees with mu­sic and friends, wine and eat­ing; I’ve had 150 peo­ple over for a con­cert. For some it’s the first time they’ve heard clas­si­cal mu­sic played live and they love it. Peo­ple feel the power of mu­sic more strongly when it’s up close.”

In two weeks Bell will re­turn to Lon­don to play and con­duct a per­for­mance with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the cham­ber orches­tra that was es­tab­lished in 1958 by the Bri­tish con­duc­tor Neville Mar­riner (1924-2016), and which Bell has of­fi­cially di­rected since 2011.

Bell and the Academy will then tour Bri­tain and Europe be­fore ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia, where au­di­ences in Bris­bane, Mel­bourne and Syd­ney will be treated to sep­a­rate pro­grams var­i­ously fea­tur­ing Beethoven’s Sym­phony No 3, Mozart’s swag­ger­ing Sym­phony No 25 and vi­o­lin con­cer­tos by Bruch, Schu­mann and Tchaikovsky. Bell has played Aus­tralia with the Academy once be­fore, in 1999.

“I only went to Bris­bane, and that was when Sir Neville was lead­ing,” says Bell of his friend, who with the Academy part­nered the 21-yearold vi­olin­ist in his first ever con­certo disc, for Lon­don Records, in 1988.

“I’m so ex­cited to be go­ing back to Aus­tralia, and this time to be con­duct­ing as well as play­ing. Of all the many things I do, my work with the Academy is what I love the most.”

A peek at Bell’s dizzy­ing 2017 sched­ule re- veals recital ap­pear­ances all across North Amer­ica with his long-term mu­si­cal part­ner, Ital­ian pi­anist Alessio Bax, along with guest spots with the At­lanta Sym­phony and New York Phil­har­monic and the sym­phony or­ches­tras of San Fran­cisco, Seat­tle and Mon­treal. Fur­ther afield, there is a Euro­pean tour with the Swedish Ra­dio Sym­phony and a tour of Ja­pan and South Korea with the Orches­tra de Paris, both un­der the English con­duc­tor Daniel Hard­ing, an­other for­mer “boy won­der”.

It is the chal­lenge pre­sented by si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­duct­ing and play­ing, you feel, that Bell es­pe­cially rel­ishes. Un­like other soloists who have sec­ond lives as con­duc­tors, at one re­move from their in­stru­ments, Bell is un­usual in his ea­ger­ness to di­rect from the vi­o­lin.

“The Tchaikovsky piece is es­pe­cially de­mand­ing,” he says. “It’s a work that al­most al­ways has a [sep­a­rate] con­duc­tor. It is in­cred­i­bly ath­letic and en­er­getic; the vi­o­lin keeps go­ing and go­ing un­til you fi­nally get a cou­ple of breaks, ex­cept then I have to whip around for con­duct­ing, then get straight back into play­ing.”

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously fea­tured in Peo­ple maga- zine’s “50 Most Beau­ti­ful Peo­ple” list, and with fan sites dot­ted all across the in­ter­net, Bell’s easy­go­ing charm and boy­ish good looks be­lie his stag­ger­ing tal­ent and finely thought-out in­ter­pre­ta­tions — even if, as a self-con­fessed per­fec­tion­ist, he has had to learn to ac­cept com­pli­ments.

Es­chew­ing the wear­ing of tails and white tie (“I bal­ance com­fort with re­spect”), Bell lends rock star qual­ity to the Academy, an en­sem­ble that Mar­riner made fa­mous through a pro­lific record­ing sched­ule but which had lost pro­file in the run-up to Bell’s ap­point­ment — which was widely con­sid­ered a coup.

The of­fer came a few years af­ter the so-called “Wash­ing­ton Post ex­per­i­ment”; an event that made him a house­hold name. In Jan­uary 2007, Bell donned a base­ball cap, picked up his 300year-old Stradi­var­ius and posed as a busker in a Wash­ing­ton, DC sub­way sta­tion dur­ing morn­ing rush hour, with the re­ac­tions of passersby recorded on a hid­den cam­era. It was an ex­per­i­ment in con­text: “In a ba­nal set­ting at an in­con­ve­nient time, would beauty tran­scend?” asked colum­nist Gene Wein­garten (whose ar­ti­cle brought him the 2008 Pulitzer prize for fea­ture writ­ing).

As it turned out, not nec­es­sar­ily: of the 1070 peo­ple who passed by, only 27 stopped to lis­ten. Bell wound up with just $US37 in his open vi­o­lin case, in­clud­ing $US20 from a woman who recog­nised him.

It was big news then, with a widely watched doc­u­men­tary. Bell would rather not talk about it today. “I get why you have to ask me about it,” he says with a sigh, “but it’s been a dou­ble-edged sword. On the one hand it’s a link for peo­ple

Joshua Bell

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