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Joshua Bell works to expand his audience

Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell is among the most acclaimed musicians of his generation, a violinist who has successfully made the transition from child prodigy to mature artist.
But Bell, clearly, wants more than just classical renown. In an interview a few years back from his New York City home, the violinist spoke earnestly of his desire to expand both his artistic range and his audience, to record material that is both creatively satisfying for him and eminently marketable for his label.
“It's a challenging time these days," Bell told me then. "I enjoy making records that are really unique ... something for the company that both appeals to my interests and that they can market to a wide audience."
In practice, those twin objectives have yielded not only a series of best-selling classical releases but also projects that have exposed the violinist to new audiences, such as his collection of "West Side Story" suites and "Short Trip Home," his bluegrass-themed collaboration with Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush and Mike Marshall. He even guested on "Closer," the album that established Josh Groban as the king of classical crossover.
"It's not really about lowest common denominator," Bell said of such projects. "I did a tune on Josh Groban's ... album (because) I thought he attracts a wider audience but the kind of audience that I felt would appreciate classical music. It may have been a help."
Bell will witness the results of those efforts February 8 when he performs at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall. Pianist Sam Haywood will accompany him through a program that includes Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, Op. 1, No. 10, "Devil's Trill Sonata"; Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, Op. 96; Stravinsky’s Divermento for violin and piano (after "The Fairy's Kiss"); and Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34.
Bell’s desire to blur musical boundaries is particularly evident on his most recent release, the holiday-themed “Musical Gifts.” The disc features collaborations with a number of jazz artists, including Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, Julian Lage, Michael Feinstein, Chris Botti and Straight No Chaser.
The latter two, like Bell, attended Indiana University. Indeed, the violinist was born and raised in the college town of Bloomington. His father, Alan, taught in the IU psychology department while also working at the famed Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. His mother, Shirley, was a guidance counselor. They raised Bell and his two sisters on a farm outside of town.
"They were living in New York and were unsure if Bloomington had anything to offer culturally," Bell said.
His parents soon discovered otherwise. They were particularly taken by the programs available through Indiana's music school, one of the nation's finest.
"So, for me, it was kind of an ideal place to grow up," Bell said of Bloomington's blend of thriving culture and rural setting. "I didn't have to move anywhere to study with great teachers."
Bell received his first violin at age 5, and by 12 was studying at the university with Josef Gingold. As a teen, he was performing professionally with the likes of the Philadelphia Orchestra. By the close of the 1980s, Bell had won a Seventeen magazine/General Motors competition, been awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant, debuted at Carnegie Hall and inaugurated his recording career with London Records. Given that, trading Bloomington for Manhattan at 22 was no big deal.
"It didn't feel like any big culture shock," Bell said. "It was a pretty natural thing to do. I had a lot of friends in New York."
Bell could bond with them over more than music. An avid tennis player in his youth -- he placed fourth in a national tournament at age 10 -- Bell keeps his racket nearby.
It was with the switch to Sony Classical that Bell's career truly took off. In his two decades with the label, he has recorded everything from Beethoven and Sibelius concertos to collections of Gershwin and a collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, "Listen to the Storyteller." His movie credits include appearing both on screen and on the soundtrack of "The Red Violin" and "Music of the Heart."
Amid all the discussion of recording, however, Bell makes the point that studio work is always a secondary concern for him.
"I live for performing live, really," he said. "I've been doing this a long time."

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