NEW YORK — I’m preparing to talk to Josh Bell, America’s favorite homegrown violinist, the affable sunny-boy-next-door heartthrob who’s 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 “play” them until his parents got him a real violin. They know about the many recordings, including the crossover projects and soundtracks (“The Red Violin” 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 Post’s 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 — a solo recital — to the unusual — an orchestral performance accompanied by cocktails, food and wine curated by “Top Chef” 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 children’s book called “The Man With the Violin” about, what else, that infamous Metro performance.
So what don’t people know about Josh Bell? And what might they find out?
“He’s an adrenaline junkie,” says the cellist Steven Isserlis, who calls Bell his (honorary) “younger brother” after more than 30 years of friendship.
Elizabeth Sobol, who managed Bell’s career for many decades as head of IMG, says “he has always been deeply soulful about his music, and deeply intelligent about everything he does” – 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 he’s 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.
“There’s this aw-shucks Indiana boy personality,” says the pianist Jeremy Denk, who has toured extensively with Bell, “which I think is a way in which he hides the incredible sharpness of his mind and perceptiveness. When he seems not to notice things, he’s always noticing.”
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 he’s constantly on the road; that he has trouble carving out personal time; that he doesn’t see his three sons – the eldest 9, the twins 6 – as much as he would like, though he was able to walk them to school that morning. The real secret of a success on Bell’s scale, though, is that he doesn’t suffer from keeping so many balls in the air: he thrives on it.
Asked how he manages his schedule, he laughs. “I just say yes to everything,” he says. “That way, there’s no fear of missing out. What’s it called, FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out? Basically, you weigh it: it’s got to have either some incredibly great musical reason, artistic reason, location, money – it better be one of them. If it’s none of them, it’s 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 I’d have to sell the house.”
And he can’t do that. In fact, he’s just bought a weekend home, outside of New York City, to give the boys some room to run around. The boys’ 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 Bell’s. 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 – and now and then in concerts with Bell himself.
The fact that chamber music is Bell’s stated preference says a lot about an artist who is fueled more by interest in music than by the lure of stardom. It’s not quite true that he’s not interested in the trappings of celebrity – his New York apartment certainly fits his profile as star musician. Indeed, the limelight may fuel him – 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 it’s allowing him to explore new repertory, like Beethoven symphonies. (He will lead the Seventh Symphony with the NSO on Feb. 11.)
“I’ve known the [symphonies],” he says, “for my whole life — listened to countless orchestras on the second half [of the program] doing them, because I’m done after the first half. I finally get to sort of dig into [them], and go after things. There’s still so many things where I think, ‘Nobody goes for it this way!’ And I can make this happen in a way that I’ve never even heard on recording, and it’s incredibly exciting.”
But he’s 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 he’s never taken a conducting lesson — beyond watching dozens of the world’s greatest conductors from the stage, playing with them as soloist. “I don’t think of conducting as a show,” he says. “I think of it as a means to an end.” 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 “the biggest goal, that I feel like I haven’t done enough,” he says, “is to compose.”
In short, he’s leaving no musical stone unturned.
“You can not like how I do things,” he says, “but I don’t think one can say that I phone it in. Really, every note means something to me. And I want them” – the players in his orchestra – “to have that feeling too.”
Joshua Bell’s 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 children’s book “The Man With the Violin,” on Sunday.