Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Classical Music Column for September 13, 2002 ANG PREVIEW Section

by Cheryl North

The rarefied world of the violin, its masters and its lovers, brims with intrigue - and uncanny coincidence. Consider last night at Davies Symphony Hall. Joshua Bell, the hot young head of the world's current remarkable set of youthful violin virtuosos, performed Samuel Barber's resplendent Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony on his multi-million-dollar 1713 Stradivarius Violin.

But just a few feet to his right, was another multi-million-dollar instrument of great significance to Bell. The 1742 Guarneri del Jesu violin, known as the "David," was cradled in the arms of SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. Named for one of its previous owners, the great 19th century virtuoso Ferdinand David, the "David" was the favorite instrument of the 20th century's premier virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz.

Now here's the kicker. Bell's most recent hit recording, the Op. 64 Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn with Sir Roger Norrington conducting the Camerata Salzburg, was actually inspired by the very David for whom Mendelssohn wrote the piece. In fact, it was this self-same violin under Barantschik's chin, with which David had premiered the Mendelssohn concerto in 1845.

During a cell phone interview with Bell on Monday as he was traveling on a Los Angeles freeway to a recording studio, I told him the astonished Bell that the "David'" would actually be within his reach when he performed on the Davies Hall stage later in the week.

I asked him why it is that old violins are so desirable.

"They sound better. Believe me, if I could spend less to get such glorious sound quality, I would," he replied. "I basically mortgaged my life away to get this particular Strad."

Bell's current fiddle is not only expensive, it is fraught with mystery and intrigue. Named the "Gibson" for Alfred Gibson, one of its earliest owners, it was owned early in the 20th century by Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. It was stolen from him in Vienna in 1919. Although soon returned, it was stolen once again from his dressing room in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1936 and thereafter seemed to vanish from the face of the earth. Then in 1985, in a deathbed confession, a former cafe musician named Julian Altman revealed, with convincing, although mind-boggling evidence, that his violin was really the famed "Gibson" Stradivarius.

The good news is that the mysterious instrument, with its red-hued varnish, is now in Bell's worthy hands. Referring to the Grammy Award winning John Corigliano soundtrack to the film The Red Violin in which he played the violin solos, Bell told a previous interviewer, "It's really ironic for me that I'm ending up with a red violin!"

I asked Bell if he could summon up some English words to describe the vaunted Stradivarius sound. "It has incredible tonal quality ... it projects through a has distinctive, rich overtones...great subtlety and nuance. My first teacher, Josef Gingold, played a Strad."

Responding to my question about how a Stradivari compares to a Guarneri, he said, "The Guarneri is like a Lamborghini automobile - great power with 12 cylinders. The more you press it, the more it gives. The Strad, on the other hand, is more like a Porsche - finely, precisely engineered."

Bell loves fine cars almost as much as he loves violins. He drives a Porsche 911 and participated in the Indy 500 last year by playing his fiddle for the festivities after he driving his own lap around the track before the 350,000 assembled fans. In spite of his celebrity status and his being named one "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" by People Magazine and one of Glamour Magazine's "Six 'It' Men of the Millennium," Bell continues to be thoughtful and unaffected in his dealings with friends, fans, the press, and the general public.

Born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1967 and had a relatively normal childhood with his psychologist parents and two sisters. He grew up loving computer games and played basketball competitively. He made the finals of a national tennis tournament when he was 10. Yet, by age 14, violin in hand, he made his highly acclaimed orchestral debut with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Within months, he performed his Carnegie Hall debut.

Now a world-class musical superstar, he has performed to great acclaim with the world's major orchestras and conductors. In addition to two best-selling movie score recordings, he has made highly praised CDs of Leonard Bernsteins' West Side Story Suite; won a Grammy Award for his CD performance of Nicholas Maw's new Violin Concerto; and earned raves for his participation in the lively blue-grass recording Short Trip Home with Edgar Meyer as well as an interesting crossover disc, Perpetual Motion, with Bela Fleck.

Bell champions of music of all kinds. His feelings are especially strong about the Barber Violin Concerto he's currently performing with the SFS. "When Barber wrote it in the 1940s, it was not taken seriously because it was not in what was then 'mainstream.' It was tonal and lyrical, instead of 12-tone atonal. It was considered to be pedestrian, even a little vulgar," he explained. "But I sincerely consider it to be the American violin concerto. It's one of my favorites," he maintained.

But, one can't spend hour upon hour in musical communication with Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, and Sibelius and the like, and not be deeply committed to his fellow men. Often a performer on benefit programs throughout the world, Bell rallied friends together for an impromptu performance at a Red Cross shelter after witnessing the infamous 9/11 attack from his loft in New York City. Last Wednesday, on the attack's one-year anniversary, Bell participated with Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS in a free outdoor concert in Yerba Buena Gardens.

He is also a champion of youth musical education and has made guest appearances on Sesame Street and a number of other educational television shows. As an adjunct professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is seriously involved working on the development of a new electronic instrument, a so-called "Hyperviolin," geared to spur creativity and help kids learn music.

And how does this young, uncommonly handsome, intense, young violinist want to be considered 25 years from now? Casting all the glamour and celebrity aside, he said, "I want to be appreciated by my peers -- to be considered a musicians' musician."

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