Typically, child prodigies who debut professionally at the age of 14 either continue to live up to grand expectations and grow into accomplished professionals or fade into obscurity. Joshua Bell is a clear example of the former, having performed with classical music greats like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yo-Yo Ma, recording 15 acclaimed works, touring the world, and pursuing his own compositions. But perhaps his most impressive trait is his passion for the music he plays. Writing in Interview magazine, Stephen Greco asserted, “What Joshua Bell does is play the violin. What Joshua Bell is is a poet. Onstage… Bell conjures from his instrument (a 1726 Stradavarius [known as the “Tom Taylor”]) a sound that does nothing less than tell why human beings bother to live.”
Bell received his first violin—or “fiddle” as it’s referred to affectionately in the field—at the age of five, a gift from his father. The young boy had already become adept at plunking out tunes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a series of rubber bands stretched to different lengths between his dresser drawers, a system he had devised at the age of three or four. Unlike many overachieving young stars, Bell did not come from a family bent on producing a musical prodigy. Growing up in the lush Midwestern hills of Bloomington, Illinois, his father was a psychologist and professor at the University of Indiana, and his mother was a counselor for gifted children. Bell considered himself a “normal kid,” and later told Elizabeth McNeil of People, “I went to public schools and played a lot of sports.” In fact, he was a state tennis champion at the age of ten and was known locally for his athletic achievements rather than his considerable musical prowess.
Furthermore, Bell did not even consider violin his primary interest until about the age of 12, when he was accepted into the renowned Meadowmount music camp in upstate New York. There he met his future mentor, Josef Gingold, a first-rate violinist born in Belorussia and part of a legendary chain of famous musician/teachers which included his teacher, the Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysayë. The camp also awoke Bell from his musical slumbers: “That was a major turning point, going to the camp and hearing all those great players,” Bell told Jessica Duchen of Strad in 1996. “It was a revelation to me. I had been living very much in my own world and had never heard of Heifetz before!” (Jascha Heifetz is a Russian-born American violin master).
The four weeks of eight-hour-a-day practice at Meadowmount (compared to the hour a day he had devoted up to then), gave Bell the determination to become a professional musician. After much pleading from Bell’s parents, Gingold agreed to make an exception regarding
Born December 9, 1967, in Bloomington, IN; son of Alan (a psychology professor) and Shirley (a counselor for gifted children) Bell.
Debuted professionally at age 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1981; signed to London Records, 1986; toured with major orchestras in America, Europe, Australia, and Asia; performed with classical music legends Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Neville Mariner, and Yo-Yo Ma; formed the Orion Quartet, 1994; started an annual chamber music festival in London’s Wigmore Hall, 1996.
Awards: First prize, Seventeen Magazine /General Motors competition, 1981.
the boy’s age and take him on as a full-time student. But it wasn’t without regard to the young musician’s considerable prospects. Charles Michener, writing for New York, quoted the teacher as saying, “Everything about Joshua is special—his charm, his brains, his naturalness. Certainly he’s one of the greatest violin talents I’ve heard in 70 years—he was born to play the instrument. And he has tremendous powers of concentration: As fast as I could give him the repertoire, he absorbed it.”
Gingold instilled in Bell a wide variety of musical skills, ranging from “old fashioned” fingerings the teacher had learned from Ysayë to the confidence that comes from being able to test one’s own ideas and interpretations. But most important was the idea that an artist’s inspiration must come from the heart—from a love for the music and a commitment to it. “He really gave me his love for music and for the violin,” Bell told Strad. “He had the most beautiful sound of any instrumentalist I’ve ever heard and just having that beautiful sound in my ear had a big impact on me.”
This experience with the gifted teacher led Bell to win first prize in a 1981 Seventeen Magazine/General Motors competition at the age of 14. And that victory landed him an audition with Ricardo Muti, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Subsequently, Bell made his professional debut as the youngest soloist ever to play a series of concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The ensuing four years saw Bell continue his studies with Gingold and play professionally, as well as indulge his other interests: tennis, basketball, chess, video games, cards, and computers.
In 1987, before Bell’s twentieth birthday, London/Decca Records signed the musician to an exclusive recording contract, the company’s first with a classical artist in a decade. The interest was evident in the way the label promoted Bell, with his boyish good looks and affecting charm, as a golden opportunity to make classical music more accessible to a wide audience, including young listeners. People referred to this marketing as “peddl[ing] him as an upmarket teen idol through a VH-1 video and some hunkish CD cover photos.” Not surprisingly, the video was one of the first ever for a classical performer and was broadcast on the Arts & Entertainment and Bravo networks, as well.
Over the next ten years Bell made 13 records for London, including concertos by Brahms, Schumann and Mozart, two Prokovief sonatas for violin and piano, and selections from the Opus of Fritz Kreisler, the Viennese contemporary of Ysayë and idol of Bell’s teacher, Gingold. This last recording, as was Bell’s first Carnegie Hall recital in March 1997, was dedicated to Gingold, who died in 1995.
Luminaries with whom Bell performed and recorded between 1987 and his thirtieth birthday in 1997 included some in the best performers in the classical music world: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sir Neville Mariner and Esa-Pekka Salonen. His performances with the world’s leading symphony orchestras were numerous and included the New York, Los Angeles, and London Philharmonic Orchestras; the Boston, Chicago, and London Symphonies; and many of the major orchestras in Europe, Australia, and Asia.
Music critics regularly regarded Bell’s live concerts as special events. In an August 1997 review of his performance of a Saint-Saens Violin Concerto at the famed Tanglewood summer music festival in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, the Boston Globe praised “the charismatic young Joshua Bell, who is just plain fun to listen to. Bristling with shameless bravura, opinions, humor, and caprice, Bell soars like a lark in lyric moments and tosses off devilish passage work with airy nonchalance, head thrown back and hair madly tossing.”
The fascination with Joshua Bell, the child prodigy turned accomplished professional, continued in the 1990s. He made a series of popular appearances beyond the world of classical music. He was featured in a 1993 Live from Lincoln Center PBS broadcast, was the subject of a 1995 BBC documentary Omnibus, and was included in Arts & Entertainment’s Biography of Mozart. Guest spots on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, CNN, and CBS This Morning further exposed Bell to the American public. He even modeled for a June 1994 Travel & Leisure fashion page in clothes from Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart.
By 1996 Bell’s career kept him busy, with over 100 concerts a year in recital throughout America and Europe. In that year also he signed an unlimited, exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. The first release, in the spring of 1998, was renowned composer John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin Fantasy,” the score for the film The Red Violin. Bell was hired as artistic advisor, body double, and performing violinist for the film, which traced the fictional history of a rare violin through three centuries.
Other ongoing projects Bell involved himself with in the late 1990s included the Orion Quartet, which was in residency at New York’s Lincoln Center; an annual chamber music festival in London’s Wigmore Hall, which he founded in 1997; a Gershwin album with composer John Williams; and a collaboration with the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Additionally, Bell embarked on the unusual task of composing his own cadenzas for the major violin concertos. The cadenza is a soloist’s elaboration on the themes of the concerto that follows certain progressions but leaves a significant amount to the artist’s creativity. Speaking to Gramophone’s Nick Kimberley in 1996, Bell described his performance philosophy: “People say music is about communication. I don’t see it that way. In a sense, of course, you’re communicating, but music is about one’s own relationship with a piece…. In the end you’re creating something for yourself, which the audience can then peer into.”
Live from the Spoleto Festival USA, 1986: Kodaly: Duo, op. 7; Mozart: Quartet in F major; Vivaldi: Concerto in D major, MusicMasters, 1986.
Live from the Spoleto Festival USA, 1987: Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3, MusicMasters, 1987.
Presenting Joshua Bell: Works by Wieniawski, Sibelius, Brahms/Joachim, Paganini, Bloch, Novacek, Schumann, Auer, Falla, Kreisler, Grasse, de Sarasate, London, 1988.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op 35; Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, op 22 (with The Cleveland Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor), London, 1988.
Faure: Violin Sonata No. 1; Debussy: Violin Sonata; Franck: Violin Sonata, London, 1988.
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, op 64 (with Orchestra of Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; Neville Marriner, conductor), London, 1988.
Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No. 3; Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole, London, 1989.
Chausson: Concert pour piano, violon et quator a cordes, op 21; Ravel: Trio pour piano, violon et violoncelle, London, 1990.
Chausson: Poeme, op. 25; SaintSaens: Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, op. 28; Massenet: Meditation de Thais; de Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, op. 20; Ysayë: Caprice d’apres I’Etude en forme de valse de Saint-Saens; Ravel: Tzigane (with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor), London, 1992.
Mozart: Violin Concerti Nos. 3 & 5; Adagio in E major; Rondo in C major, London, 1992.
Prokofiev: Violin Concerti, Nos. 1 & 2, London, 1993.
Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in F minor, op. 80; 5 Melodies, op. 35; Violin Sonata in D major, op. 94, London, 1995.
The Kreisler Album: Joshua Bell Plays Music by Fritz Kreisler, London, 1996.
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77; Schumann: Violin Concerto in D minor, London, 1996.
Barber: Violin Concerto; Bloch: Baal Shem; William Walton: Violin Concerto, London, 1997.
The Gift, San Francisco Public Television.
Joshua Bell, British Broadcasting Corporation’s “Panorama,” 1994.
Master Teacher Series Lessons with Ivan Galamian, Meadowmount School of Music, 1984.
BBC Music Magazine, March 1995.
Boston Globe, August 4, 1997.
Classical Pulse, August/September 1996, pp. 8-10.
Esquire, March 1990.
Gramophone, April 1996; February 1997.
Independent (London), January 25, 1997.
Interview Magazine, 1990.
New York, July 16, 1990, pp. 36-39.
New York Times, October 8, 1995, Arts & Leisure section; March 20, 1997.
People, April 28, 1997, pp. 111-112.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1992.
Strad, November 1996, pp. 1168-1170.
Strings, May/June 1995, pp. 36-43; July/August 1996, pp. 54-62.
Travel & Leisure, June 94, p. 86.
USA Today, September 27, 1982.
Additional information was provided by IMG Artists publicity materials, 1997.
—John F. Packet
"Bell, Joshua." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bell-joshua
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"Bell, Joshua." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bell-joshua
"Bell, Joshua." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved May 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bell-joshua