Classical experiment

Eclectic violinist Joshua Bell is a fine arts and pop culture go-between

Fiddler’s frenzy: Violinist Joshua Bell is classically trained in both pop sounds and fine arts.

Fiddler’s frenzy: Violinist Joshua Bell is classically trained in both pop sounds and fine arts.

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Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts

9399 Old Davis Rd.
Davis, CA 95616

(530) 754-2787

In 2006, the Washington Nationals baseball team was pathetic. So when a boyish-looking man wearing a Nationals cap left the Washington, D.C., subway system toting a fiddle and positioned himself in a busy indoor plaza during morning rush hour, he didn’t attract much attention. Perhaps the busker was simply hoping to wheedle some extra change from the hometown fans.

But when he started to play, something special happened. He was astonishingly good. So good, in fact, that shoeshiner Edna Souza didn’t call the metro police or the plaza cops. And Souza always called the cops, because noisy musicians always ruined her business.

What she and the morning commuters didn’t know was that the fiddle was a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. And the busker was Joshua Bell, a renowned violinist whose name is whispered breathlessly in concert halls throughout the world.

The written account of Bell’s “subway concert,” a social experiment put on by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, won the author a Pulitzer Prize for exploring the relationship between modern culture and art, and our longing for beauty amid a cacophony of media, speed and technology. At the center was Bell, who thought the idea “cool” after Yo-Yo Ma had turned it down cold.

When Bell plays the Mondavi Center on Saturday, February 27, he will this time have a captive audience. And that, he says, is one of the lessons he learned from playing to indifferent metro commuters.

“It made me appreciate the times now, when the atmosphere is really truly great and the audience is really participating,” Bell explained via telephone. “At a restaurant, [music] is played in the background, and that’s not the way it should be listened to. … Music is a two-way street, and you really need a listener who is using his brain.”

Bell’s playing has kept audiences rapt for a very long time. At 4, he famously tied rubber bands around his dresser handles, which he adjusted to produce different notes. At just 14, he was a soloist with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He first played Carnegie Hall at 18. In 1998, he was featured in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin, which launched his career ever higher. His classic 2004 Romance of the Violin was Billboard Magazine’s Classical CD of the Year, the same year he won Classical Artist of the Year.

His playing is by turns enthusiastic, technically brilliant and sweetly romantic. His last tour included an animated, witty riff on “Yankee Doodle.” Interview magazine called Bell’s music the “sound that does nothing less than tell why human beings bother to live.” Indeed, a radio caller once thanked Bell for his music because it was the only thing that helped her sleep after the death of her husband.

Still with boyish good looks at 42, Bell continues his ambassadorship of classical music in subversive ways, by fusing his classically trained violin with bluegrass, sitar, Gershwin and beyond. In collaborations with musicians varying from Wynton Marsalis to Béla Fleck, he fuels a restless desire to branch out from the confines of “classical” to cross-pollinate with distant artists and genres. First-time classical-music concertgoers often arrive at his shows in the wake of his collaborations with friends Josh Groban or trumpeter (and college pal) Chris Botti.

“I’m very optimistic about the future of classical music,” he said. “I’m not so pessimistic as some.” Yet Bell is clearly uncomfortable with the constraints tying down classical music, even going on record once with “What is it, really? It covers 400 years and multiple styles.”

Joshua Bell, violinist, looking equally classical and Bon Jovi-esque in his PR photo.

Photo courtesy of

His latest CD, Joshua Bell: At Home With Friends, was inspired by the rural Bloomington, Ind., house full of music where he grew up. “We had these sort of home concert salons or musicales,” he reminisced. Hosted by his parents, these shows featured friends and neighbors playing a variety of music, an experience the new CD mirrors. It’s a wildly eclectic mix, pairing Bell with such diverse artists as Regina Spektor, Sting, Marvin Hamlisch, and Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar. (Even the dead Sergei Rachmaninoff appears with the help of technology claiming to replicate precisely the exact piano keystrokes and nuances of the original recording, thereby stripping out the accompanying violin of idol Fritz Kreisler, whom Bell replaces.)

Bell said the CD documents some of his “stranded little projects” with hopes of “capturing the fun of making music.” It hits a peak during the collaboration with sitarist Shankar, in the nine-minute “Variant Moods,” written by her father. The piece echoes the heralded “West Meets East” collaborations from the ’60s and ’70s between violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the elder Shankar, which Bell called “groundbreaking in its time.”

The foundation for Bell’s eclectic tastes was laid in his youth, when an older cousin introduced him to the prog-rock band Genesis. Already steeped in the complex rhythms of Igor Stravinsky, Bell was mesmerized with the band’s rich harmonies and experiments in five, seven and 13 beats per measure that mirrored the great Russian composer.

“That was the first time I thought, ‘This pop music really has some substance to it,’” he said. “Genesis sort of became my band.”

Bell once termed working with Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins his “dream collaboration.” So why not for his latest CD? Bell said he “floated the idea” past the Collins/Gabriel camps—alas—with no luck.

Always the eager troubadour, Bell has searched the world for musical gems. During a visit to Hungary, he traded licks—and instruments—with fiddlers from Budapest, whom he called “as great as anything I’ve ever heard, as fast as anything I’ve ever heard.” This Gypsy music has always infiltrated classical music, pointed out Bell, especially in the 19th century.

The restless Bell has constantly explored the outer reaches of the musical sphere. In 1998, he recorded a series of Gershwin tunes with the London Symphony Orchestra. A year later, his old-timey bluegrass collaboration Short Trip Home, with a group including legendary mandolin player Sam Bush, was nominated for a Grammy.

Now in the midst of a 20-city recital tour, Bell will be playing an all-classical repertoire at Mondavi, with pianist and fellow Indiana University graduate Jeremy Denk. Bell gushes over the energy and spontaneity of Denk’s piano; their collaboration is “very exciting,” he says, because Denk holds his own rather than expecting Bell to carry the performance.

The program includes works by Bach, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and—for his 200th anniversary—Robert Schumann, who Bell cites as one of the two great melody composers, along with Franz Schubert. “Everybody should be playing Schumann,” he says.

Brash and risky in his musical adventures, Bell is equally modest about his own fame and offers an unfailing “aw, shucks” persona. He begs off any request to name favorite conductors or even suggest a modern composer who may stand the test of time.

“It’s something we always ask ourselves: Who’s the Bach of our time, or the next Shostakovich?”

As one of classical music’s most probing talents, Bell takes both his genius and his musical escapades in stride: “I feel like I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg.”