BY WARREN BOROSON
Part of this article appeared in The Jewish Standard of Teaneck.
In some ways, the 44-year-old violinist Joshua Bell seems to be a reincarnation of 19th century pianist Franz Liszt. Not just a superb musician, but colorful and glamorous to boot. A showman.
What Bell doesn’t seem to be is another Jascha Heifitz – austere, cold, and remote. Heifetz tried to be perfectly immobile while he played; Bell moves around a lot. And can you imagine the haughty Heifetz donning a baseball cap and playing for passersby in a subway station in Washington, D.C., just for the fun of it?
Bell happens to be an Americanized version of a concert violinist: down to earth and unpretentious. He’s appeared on “Sesame Street” and on nighttime TV shows, performed with Sting, and furnished the soundtrack for “The Red Violin” and other films. Of course, he’s also won a Grammy -- and the composer of the music for “Red Violin,” John Corigliano, in accepting an Academy Award, mentioned that Bell “plays like a god.” Bell has also made 26 albums, the latest of which, with pianist Jeremy Denk, is called “French Impressions.”
It doesn’t hurt Bell’s popular appeal that he is also intelligent and well-spoken, modest and courteous. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and handsome -- looking sort of like actor Tom Cruise.
The press doesn’t know what to make of him. They mention his Beatle-like haircut, his Zorro-like clothing (black, informal). And then there was his astonishing subway concert one morning five years ago in Washington, D.C. Exactly 1,097 people walked past him as he was playing, and only three stopped to listen. And only one of those three actually recognized him. (She gave him $20.) During his entire 45-minute performance, he collected only $52.17 (including the $20).
Bell, who will be performing Sunday at 3 P.M. at bergenPAC in Englewood (tickets: 201-816-8160; or www.bergenPAC.org), was born in Indianapolis, and at age 4 took up the violin. At 14 he was a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti. Since then, he’s given concerts all over the world. He lives in New York City, in Gramercy Park, a privately owned park where a host of other celebrities, including John Barrymore, once lived or still live.
These days Bell is so busy that one of his assistants gave this reporter only 15 minutes on the phone to interview him….
Q. That subway concert you gave five years ago – were you disillusioned? Because so few people stopped to listen to you?
Bell: Naw. I think a lot of people who read the article were up in arms, but everything played out pretty much as I expected. It was certainly not fun to play to an audience that’s not a captive audience. It just re-confirmed my notion that the audience has a key role in music-making, that you need an attentive audience and an atmosphere that allows you to do what you do. Classical music can’t be appreciated unless you have full attention, it requires too much of the brain. That’s why we love it. As a listener, it requires active thinking. So, if you’re rushing to work, there’s none of that process happening. So the experiment said a lot of things – about how we’re all in a little bit of a rush, we’re all in our virtual world with our headphones and our iPhones and not always paying attention to what’s around us. I did it for fun, and I didn’t think that five years later I would still be talking about it.
Q. Might you ever do it again?
Bell: No. I’m already a little tired of being “the guy from the subway.” I think I’ve milked that story enough.