Joshua Bell is in an undisputed prodigy of the violin, whose virtuosic technique and musical versatility have earned him the praise of critics, audiences and fellow musicians from as early as his teenage years. He has performed and premiered many of the standard and modern works of violin repertoire and collaborated with many musicians from genres as diverse as jazz, bluegrass and film music, and is undeniable one of classical music’s most widely recognized musicians of the past 50 years.
Bell grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and received his first violin at the age of four after his parents discovered him stretching rubber bands over his dresser drawers to make music. He quickly showed immense promise, making his soloist debut with the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra at the age of seven, becoming the youngest person ever to perform as a soloist on a subscription concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 14 and making his Carnegie Hall debut with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra only three years later. Soon after, he enrolled in the Indiana University School of Music, where he studied with Josef Gingold, who would become his mentor and a major influence in his life.
Throughout the 1990s Bell systematically recorded award-winning versions of much of the standard violin repertoire, releasing more than 40 records since his debut at the age of 18. These include works by giants such asBach and Beethoven as well as several contemporary composers, such as Nicholas Maw’s Violin Concerto (2000) which was written for Bell and won him a Grammy Award. Over time his interests began to broaden even more as he sought to challenge himself musically. In 1999 he teamed up with fellow Indiana alumnus and virtuoso double bassist Edgar Meyer to record Meyer’s bluegrass-classical crossover albumShort Trip Home, and soon after he played with bluegrass superstar Béla Fleck on his Grammy-winning albumPerpetual Motion (2001). Bell has also played with many of the leading figures in jazz, including Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis.
Several events in the 1990s and 2000s helped transform Joshua Bell into a truly household name. The first was his performance as the solo violinist forJohn Corigliano’s score for The Red Violin (1998), which received many awards including the Academy Award for Best Original Score. John Corigliano later rewrote the themes from that score into a violin concerto specifically for Joshua Bell. The second event, and one of the most memorable of his career, was Bell’s participation in a social experiment for aWashington Post article written by Gene Weingarten. The piece involved Bell masquerading as a busker in the Washington metro for almost an hour, playing works ofBach on his $4 million 1713 “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius violin, and analyzed how the context of the music can change the audience perception.
Although he has already achieved great acclaim Bell continues to push himself musically, citing as inspiration the never-ending challenge of mastering the violin technically. He continues to push the envelope with his efforts to fuse and cross genres, but never at the expense of sacrificing his sweet tone and individualistic, lyrical style with a heavy narrative element. In his own words, “When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story,” and few musicians have been able to tell a more enthralling story than Joshua Bell.
Image credit: Phil Knott and Timothy White