Violinist Joshua Bell Wins Coveted Award

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 2:29 PM

NEW YORK -- Joshua Bell started playing the violin at age 4 and went on to become one of the world's leading performers. Now, approaching 40, he's venturing deeper into conducting.

In an early present, eight months before his birthday, Bell will receive $75,000 as this year's winner of the coveted Avery Fisher Prize.

The dashing violinist from Indiana, who has won three Grammys, made his professional debut at age 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Five years later, he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant for promising American classical performers. The new prize, which Bell will receive in April, honors achievement in a career.

The award is named for the late classical music benefactor and electronics wizard who helped fund Lincoln Center. Previous winners include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianists Emanuel Ax and Andre Watts, and violinists Sarah Chang and Midori.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Bell spoke about his career plans and entering his 40s:

AP: Congratulations for winning the Avery Fisher Prize.

Bell: Thank you. It's nice getting awards when you least expect it because it's not an award you try for or audition for, or even know if you're nominated for. So it's a very nice surprise.

AP: You also won the Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Bell: I won the career grant when I was about 18, and I remember that vividly because I got a call from Avery Fisher himself. ... It was a thrill ... because I was in Indiana and the other winners were more of the New York scene.

AP: The new one is for $75,000. It went up from $50,000. Any plans for the money?

Bell: Apparently (laughing). I am lucky enough to own my (Stradivarius) violin, but my dream is to work my way up to getting a Guarneri del Gesu as well, ... like (Itzhak) Perlman has and (Jascha) Heifetz used to have _ both in the double case. I can't afford that right now.

AP: $75,000 might not go too far, considering Strads and Guarneris sell in the millions.

Bell: The prize money is nice, of course, but it's the honor that's worth even more than that. To be recognized at the level of the people who have won that prize is special, and it's nice to be part of that group.

AP: Don't you have one of the best Strads, the fabled 1713 Gibson ex Huberman, which had been missing for decades until the man who stole it made a deathbed confession?

Bell: It's definitely in the top level, but there are a few ... out there that would be considered certainly on a collector's value on a higher level. As far as sound level, it's subjective at that point. As much as I love my violin, I doubt it will be the last Strad I have. I had one before that I loved for eight, nine years. I've had this for six years. When you switch violins it gives you a new kick for inspiration because it opens up different ideas of sound because each violin has its own palette of color.

AP: Talking about getting a lift from a new instrument, are you suggesting you're getting tired of the violin? Is this why you're going into conducting?

Bell: No, I'm not tired of the violin. I'm not really conducting yet, but I love leading chamber orchestras without having a conductor. ... With St. Paul (Chamber Orchestra) I'm doing a Mozart symphony, and Beethoven's 7th Symphony is coming up with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on my European tour (of Britain, Spain and Holland April 17-29). So getting to do that kind of repertoire is great. I've been watching conductors for a long time now, and keep thinking I can step up there and do it.

AP: Have you conducted before?

Bell: Only with the violin in my hands. I do some conducting, some playing. I haven't gone off with a stick and without my violin and conducted a symphony. ... In St. Paul for the past three years I've had a position of artistic partner where I go there and I do three series of concerts a year doing just that.

AP: You'll be leading the Academy of St. Martin on April 1 at Carnegie Hall in a performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings." Is this going to be the first time you'll be leading an orchestra in New York?

Bell: I think it is.

AP: So you envision yourself eventually picking up a baton?

Bell: At some point I'd like to give it a try. And also (continue) playing the violin. I'm playing 120 concerts a year. Luckily now I've hired an almost full-time massage therapist. It's quite hard on the body so I don't know how many years I can get to do so many concerts with the instrument without having problems.

AP: 120 is one every three days.

Bell: But they're actually more condensed. It's a lot, a lot of stress.

AP: Do you have any physical ailments?

Bell: Just the normal upkeep. Playing the violin is so awkward. It affects the body. I haven't had tendinitis or anything bad like ... knock on wood, but it's definitely struggling with aches and pains. I'm not getting any younger.

AP: So you'll be 40 in December. Do you feel you've exhausted the violin repertoire?

Bell: No. I'm embarrassed to say what I haven't done _ 20th century violin repertoire, I've done only a few. I haven't done the Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Berg (concertos). ... The problem is I am playing too many concerts and juggling all that I have done and introducing one concerto a year _ often a new one. ...

Also, the older I get the harder it is to learn, particularly by memory. I don't like using music for concertos but I may just resign myself to all concertos I learn now. ... because anything I learned as a kid, I can drop it for 15 years (and) I can bring it up again and it will be right there. But things I've learned as an adult, you have to keep drumming it back into your head again.


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