BUDAPEST (Reuters) - There’s nothing quite like seeing American violinist Joshua Bell play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his 1713 Stradivarius while tapping his foot like a fiddler at a barn dance.
Bell, 41, performed the song adopted by rebels during the American Revolution, and arranged for violin in the 1840s by Belgian composer Vieuxtemps, as an encore recently in London, evoking a knowing laugh from the losers.
He played it again in Budapest last week but in February he almost had goosebumps when he performed it with President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle in the front row at the refurbished Ford’s Theater in Washington for a Lincoln’s Birthday gala.
“I got a big thrill meeting the president — more than I had even expected. And his wife too. They’re a classy couple.”
Bell spoke to Reuters in his dressing room after rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the Budapest Spring Festival’s sold-out opening night (Eds: March 20).
“Classy” also is a good word to describe Bell, who has the build of a tennis player and is the only son of a Jewish mother and Christian father, both psychologists from the U.S. Midwest.
He burst onto the scene from his home state of Indiana in his teens. With a solid grounding from the music school at Indiana University, where he now teaches, he has become a leading light in the competitive world of violin virtuosos.
Each virtuoso has a distinctive style and sound which must be heard to be appreciated, but if words help, here are Bell’s:
“I want the audience to be inside the music and inside the composer, and to come away thinking, ‘Wow, that piece is really something’ rather than ‘Oh, that violinist is a real wow’.”
With dazzling technique and winning good looks, Bell of course is “a real wow.” He makes the seemingly impossible possible and discovers hidden gems seasoned listeners may never have heard in old chestnuts like the Tchaikovsky.
Reviewers dole out superlatives, calling his playing “ravishingly pretty” or “sumptuous, ardent and virtuosic.”
Mid-career, what’s it like being Joshua Bell?
“I feel like I have a lot more to do but I feel that I’ve been around enough that it gives me opportunities...People who come to concerts will probably have heard me before.
“I think it’s a nice place to be.”
He’s also a big hit on YouTube.
Two years ago Bell, dressed in street clothes and a baseball cap, posed as a busker in Washington, playing a Bach “Chaconne” during rush hour. Most people rushed past, failing to notice the Pete Sampras of the Stradivarius was fiddling for small change.
The Washington Post published an article, posted on its website along with a video clip. Much to Bell’s amazement, the clip made it to YouTube where it has had more than 1.2 million “views,” while the article went viral in endless emails.
“I guess you can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he said, jokingly. “And now I can’t sell it either, or get rid of it.”
Bell will live it down, as he has his early reputation as “the kid with the funny-shaped Strad” for playing one that had no corners and resembled a guitar.
His meteoric rise allowed him to trade up to the Huberman Strad, so-named for a previous owner from whom it was stolen in 1936, and not recovered until 50 years later.
He admits having a multi-million-dollar instrument is daunting, but it’s also inspiring.
“If I ever have doubts about whether I feel like practicing or why do I have to do this, I open up the case and there’s this incredible creation made 300 years ago by one of the great, most important men of that century.”
On the vexed issue of practicing, the bane of every young musician, Bell defends his mother’s and late father’s “laissez faire” attitude. They got him a good teacher, but allowed him to attend local public school, play tennis and “be a normal kid.”
“I didn’t burn out and I don’t feel burned out at all.”
On the other hand, if he’d practiced longer hours when he was younger, more pieces would be “hardwired” in his brain.
“I don’t wish I’d given up on the football, just a few episodes of ‘Gilligan’s Island’,” he laughed, referring to the hit 1960s American television comedy series.
Perhaps that eclectic upbringing made Bell more receptive to experimenting than some other violin thoroughbreds.
He’s played for several film scores, including “The Red Violin” whose soundtrack evolved into a popular concerto of the same name by composer John Corigliano (CD with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Sony Classical).
He’s also made forays into bluegrass and Irish-style fiddle playing, with composer Edgar Meyer, the popular American fiddler Mark O’Connor and other bluegrass musicians.
“I learned much about classical music through them...their use of rhythm and improvisation, and I felt I could bring back to my playing a lot of things that I learned.”
That may explain the toe-tapping during “Yankee Doodle.” But the artistry and technique were pure Joshua Bell.
(Joshua Bell’s latest CD release is Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Sony Classical)
Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato