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The Journal Gazette

  • Courtesy Marc Hom Joshua Bell will perform Sept. 28 at Embassy Theatre.

  • Courtesy the Bell family Joshua Bell has been playing violin since he was a child in Bloomington.

Thursday, September 21, 2017 1:00 am

Violinist Joshua Bell coming to Embassy

World-renowned violinist bringing talents to Embassy

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Violinist and Hoosier native Joshua Bell has recorded more than 40 CDs. He has won a Grammy and been mentioned in an Oscar acceptance speech. He plays with orchestras around the globe, serves on the artist committee for the Kennedy Center Honors and the board of directors of the New York Philharmonic, and is the music director for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra based in London.

The list goes on and on, and as if he's not busy enough being one of the world's most famous violinists, Bell also has to answer the door and deal with a maintenance man while squeezing in calls from reporters. He admits he's a little frazzled on this early September afternoon, but we'll get to that in a moment.

First, let's go back to the beginning, in Bloomington where 4-year-old Joshua Bell plucked at rubber bands strung around the handles on his dresser drawers. His parents noticed him playing his improvised instrument and bought him a violin. He began lessons and, at age 7, he performed for the first time with the Bloomington Symphony. From there, he continued studying and performing around the world earning a string of honors and becoming a household name – at least among the classical music set.

In 2007, Bell took part in a well-known Washington Post story by performing near a Washington, D.C., subway. The story, which earned writer Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize, explored if a world-class performance would be recognized outside of a concert hall. Answer: Most people ignored the seemingly random violin player as they hurried to work. That's quite a different reception than Bell gets in the famous concert halls of the world where he tours, sometimes alone, sometimes now with his London orchestra.

When I spoke with Bell by phone this month, he was in New York, preparing to leave for Bucharest, Romania, where he and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields would begin one such tour. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

When you go on these tours and play in the great halls, what have you taken with you from your upbringing in Indiana?

My roots are definitely in Indiana. That was a place that gave me a solid sense of family and a non-stressful upbringing as opposed to living in a major city. I'd be a different person today if I had moved to New York as a child to study music. So I definitely feel grateful that I had my time growing up in Indiana.

I kind of had the best of both worlds in Bloomington because I had the less stressful atmosphere of being in a smaller city, but I had access to the major music center that is Indiana University. Growing up in Indiana was very fortunate for me. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I've been living mostly in New York since I was about 21, but I still go back to Bloomington a lot. It will be nice to come to Fort Wayne because my family can come up and see the concert, and I have fond memories of the city. I think the first time I played in Fort Wayne must have been 30 years ago.

Was that at the Embassy?

Probably. You know, I can't even remember.

You've been to so many places!

Yeah! (chuckles)

I was reading your background and I know you're coming up on a big birthday in a couple of months (Bell will turn 50 in December) ...

Ugh, don't mention it! (chuckles)

We'll, you've done so much. Is there anything that you've wanted to do that you just haven't gotten to yet?

I feel like I'm just beginning to explore my role as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Conducting is a whole other area I feel like I'm exploring, so in a way, I'm nowhere near feeling like I've done everything. Not even close.

Music always allows you to explore and expand, though one has to make an effort to do that. I could sort of rest on my violin concertos and tour them around and get by, I suppose. But I think that as an artist, it's really important to always be pushing your limits and trying new things. So there's lots left to do.

Composing is another area that I would like to do more of in my next few decades. That's something I've always aspired to but have never had time to do much of.

When you come to places like Fort Wayne where you're playing with the Philharmonic, what is it like playing with an orchestra that is new to you?

At this stage in my career, it's happening less and less. I'm going back to places I know and it's kind of nice.

At the beginning of my career, everything was new. Every time I played with a conductor, it was someone new and a new orchestra. They looked at me wondering, “Who is this guy?” But now, it's kind of nice that I feel like I have old friends in almost every city I go to. In every orchestra, there are people I hung out with the last time or I took summer camp with when I was little.

But then again, each time you (perform) a piece with a different orchestra, new challenges come up and different conductors affect how you see the music – sometimes in a positive way, by making you rethink things. Nothing is ever the same twice in a row, so it keeps things interesting.

It's never boring, this job in music. It can be tiring, but it's never boring.

You've been involved in music since you were a young child. Did you ever come to a point where you got a little burned out on it?

You know, I have to say not really. I guess that's sort of a boring answer.

There are moments where I feel just totally drained and I've scheduled myself just too heavily and I feel like I wish I could just crawl into a hole. (laughs) But that happens very rarely, and I don't have that option to crawl into a hole, so I just don't let myself go there in my head. I really can count on my fingers the times that I've walked out onstage thinking I'd rather be somewhere else or having that feeling where I'm just phoning it in. Somehow, in front of an audience and working with great music, I always can dig deep and find something to feel inspired by even if I'm really tired.

I think part of it, is that when I was growing up, I always did other things – a lot of sports and hobbies. I try not to practice eight hours a day, which could burn me out.

What would you say today to a little boy or girl plucking rubber band strings on their dresser drawers?

(Laughs) I would ask them, “What instrument do you want to play?” And if I were a parent to this child, I would do what my parents did and immediately go out to find a teacher and instrument to foster that obvious interest.

I think there is nothing better for a kid than learning music. It teaches them a million things from discipline to communication to teamwork. There's not a better thing really in the world. I really believe that every kid, even those that don't initiate rubber band playing on their dressers, should be playing an instrument.