NEW YORK â Iâm preparing to talk to Josh Bell, Americaâs favorite homegrown violinist, the affable sunny-boy-next-door heartthrob whoâs one of the biggest stars of the classical music world.
Music fans know a lot about Bell. They know that his talent became clear when he was around 4 and strung rubber bands over the handles of his dresser so he could tune and âplayâ them until his parents got him a real violin. They know about the many recordings, including the crossover projects and soundtracks (âThe Red Violinâ is a calling card). And many, many people, even outside the classical world, know that he once played in the D.C. Metro for a story that won the Washington Postâs Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize and netted Bell, beyond the wry bemusement of having been utterly unrecognized by 1,000 people in the Metro at rush hour, a total of $32.17.
This week, Bell will showcase a cross-section of his career in a varied Kennedy Center residency that will take him from the expected â a solo recital â to the unusual â an orchestral performance accompanied by cocktails, food and wine curated by âTop Chefâ alumnus and Washington restaurateur Mike Isabella. He will show National Symphony Orchestra audiences how he approaches conducting, a more recent interest (the concert will be streamed live on Medici.tv). And there will be a new work for children, based on a childrenâs book called âThe Man With the Violinâ about, what else, that infamous Metro performance.
So what donât people know about Josh Bell? And what might they find out?
âHeâs an adrenaline junkie,â says the cellist Steven Isserlis, who calls Bell his (honorary) âyounger brotherâ after more than 30 years of friendship.
Elizabeth Sobol, who managed Bellâs career for many decades as head of IMG, says âhe has always been deeply soulful about his music, and deeply intelligent about everything he doesâ â be it the details of marketing a recording or selecting the finishes for his gorgeous duplex penthouse in Manhattan, where the violinist, 49, his hair still cut in the boyish tousle heâs been sporting since his teen years, stands waiting with his signature warm smile to receive an interviewer in an atrium flooded with natural light from the snowy sky outside.
âThereâs this aw-shucks Indiana boy personality,â says the pianist Jeremy Denk, who has toured extensively with Bell, âwhich I think is a way in which he hides the incredible sharpness of his mind and perceptiveness. When he seems not to notice things, heâs always noticing.â
Bell is certainly diffident, and down-to-earth. And it would be easy, sitting with him and chatting about his well-known love of sports and video games, to think that everything had come to him by accident: the acclaim, the apartment with its sweeping staircase up to the teak-paneled roof deck with its hot tub, even the Stradivarius that sits in its open case, propped across a chair as if he had set it down carelessly when surprised by a visitor while practicing. It would be easy to forget that heâs constantly on the road; that he has trouble carving out personal time; that he doesnât see his three sons â the eldest 9, the twins 6 â as much as he would like, though he was able to walk them to school that morning. The real secret of a success on Bellâs scale, though, is that he doesnât suffer from keeping so many balls in the air: he thrives on it.
Asked how he manages his schedule, he laughs. âI just say yes to everything,â he says. âThat way, thereâs no fear of missing out. Whatâs it called, FOMO â the Fear of Missing Out? Basically, you weigh it: itâs got to have either some incredibly great musical reason, artistic reason, location, money â it better be one of them. If itâs none of them, itâs not worth it. Obviously, the artistic thing is first, but you know, I do have to pay the bills. I would love to do chamber music all year round, but Iâd have to sell the house.â
And he canât do that. In fact, heâs just bought a weekend home, outside of New York City, to give the boys some room to run around. The boysâ mother is a long-ago girlfriend, Lisa Matricardi, who remained a close friend; at a point, the two of them decided to have a child, then more. Matricardi lives a few blocks away, and the children go back and forth from her house to Bellâs. Bell also lives with his girlfriend, Larisa Martinez, an opera singer in her 20s who has appeared in several productions with small New York companies like Loft Opera â and now and then in concerts with Bell himself.
The fact that chamber music is Bellâs stated preference says a lot about an artist who is fueled more by interest in music than by the lure of stardom. Itâs not quite true that heâs not interested in the trappings of celebrity â his New York apartment certainly fits his profile as star musician. Indeed, the limelight may fuel him â but he defines it on his own terms. Take his relatively recent foray into conducting. In 2011, he took over as music director of the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, the prestigious British chamber ensemble. He describes his work with them as deeply rewarding, and not only because itâs allowing him to explore new repertory, like Beethoven symphonies. (He will lead the Seventh Symphony with the NSO on Feb. 11.)
âIâve known the [symphonies],â he says, âfor my whole life â listened to countless orchestras on the second half [of the program] doing them, because Iâm done after the first half. I finally get to sort of dig into [them], and go after things. Thereâs still so many things where I think, âNobody goes for it this way!â And I can make this happen in a way that Iâve never even heard on recording, and itâs incredibly exciting.â
But heâs ambivalent about the idea of standing in front of an orchestra with a baton and waving his arms. With the Academy, he usually conducts seated, often playing along with the orchestra. And heâs never taken a conducting lesson â beyond watching dozens of the worldâs greatest conductors from the stage, playing with them as soloist. âI donât think of conducting as a show,â he says. âI think of it as a means to an end.â And unlike some other violinists-turned-conductors (such as Nikolaj Znaider), he has no great ambition to recast himself as a maestro. Conducting is just another way that he makes music.
And âthe biggest goal, that I feel like I havenât done enough,â he says, âis to compose.â
In short, heâs leaving no musical stone unturned.
âYou can not like how I do things,â he says, âbut I donât think one can say that I phone it in. Really, every note means something to me. And I want themâ â the players in his orchestra â âto have that feeling too.â
Joshua Bellâs residency at the Kennedy Center includes a Washington Performing Arts recital with pianist Sam Haywood on Friday, the NSO concert on Saturday, and the NSO family concert, with the premiere of a new piece based on the childrenâs book âThe Man With the Violin,â on Sunday.