String Theory

No loose strings on Joshua Bell's plentiful portfolio; indeed, his career-making connection to Philadelphia has become even more taut with time.

And what the master violinist — who has taught younger musicians in classes that bespeak his mettle as a class act — has learned since having his debut at age 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, is that "you feel at home with friends."

Besides being the title of Bell's latest bravo-ed CD, it is also the way he sees his return to the orchestra, with whom he will perform next week at its opening-night concert and gala — with chief conductor Charles Dutuoit on the podium for the new season — at the Kimmel Center

How ya goin' to keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen … Philadelphia?

A "farm boy" of a sophisticate from Bloomington, Ind., Bell bloomed early on; his musical stock was evident as a prodigy with a prodigious talent for the violin — and computers and tennis.

But what he did for love netted hi m attention worldwide; soon after his Philly fretwork, he was marking his Carnegie Hall debut, receiving an Avery Fisher Career Grant and landing a major recording contract.

And now, 28 years after his debut with the Philadelphians, this Hoosier hotshot — Indiana University School of Music alum/faculty member and "Indiana Living Legend," as well as 2010 "Instrumentalist of the Year" (Musical America) and a People person making the magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" — has proved instrumental to success stories in so many ways that one bow deserves another.

Bell towers over his field here and abroad: The musician with the matinee-idol mien and music of the night fingerwork fireworks — and Grammy Award-laden mantlepiece — has also played heart and soul with Israel, where he has stopped a string (artist's argot for holding down a note) and started a longstanding relationship.

Legendary Instrument

Indeed, Bell's legendary 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius straddles a series of stories — its two thefts decades ago and discovery distill a series of historical footnotes into a virtuoso thriller — and has its roots in the rich ownership of Polish master Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), founder of the precursor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom Bell has performed numerous times.

Meant to be? "It's hard to say" whether it has been bashert that he has played the Stradivarius on stage with the IPO, says Bell.

"But it is part of the magic that is this violin, which is one of the reasons I got the instrument," at a price of $4 million, for which he used $2 million in proceeds from the sale of his 1732 Tom Taylor Stradivarius — which he performed in the film "The Red Violin," whose score scored an Oscar — to purchase it 10 years ago.

"I fell in love with its sound in 30 seconds."

Strad rad? If that sounds like a quick love affair, Bell is no note newbie; he has experience at romancing the famed instrument: "I've played many Strads in my life, and I felt that this one belonged to me" for personal reasons.

The instrument once bowed by the late founder of the Palestine Orchestra held promise in its appeal of Promised Land history, for which the calendar played into Bell's adept hands. Bell himself is a scion of Zionism, dating in lineage to his great-grandfather Shlomo. "He came on the [Jewish] Mayflower to Israel," Bell chuckles.

"And my grandfather, Morris, was born in Palestine, a sabra."

Homing in on Israel as a land of milk and honey and sweet life notes is a sound Bell can ring readily. He just returned from a visit there a couple of months ago, retracing family roots, all caught on film "for a documentary being done on me."

All in the Family

Music is muse after all, running as it does like a family metronome, with its tick-tocking off Bell's ancestry of fertile talent amid an arid homeland. While in Israel, Bell noted that the gravestone of his great-grandfather identified Shlomo as member of a noteworthy profession. He had been a cantor, a pride pronounced and etched in stone, discovered Bell.

If the story virtually pulls on the heart strings of the violinist, it is only fair play — since Bell has been a heartthrob for millions who didn't even know they were fans of classical music until they heard him — and saw him — on "The Tonight Show" or a variety of other TV appearances.

A Jewish giant of the modern music world? Bell tempers the title, placing pizzicato on the point.

"I am Jewish, but I feel connected in a heritage way," says the son of an Episcopal priest "who left the priesthood when he married my mother," who was Jewish. "I grew up celebrating all holidays."

And he is celebrated by many: Bell was Billboard magazine's 2004 "Classical Artist of the Year" and his CD of "Romance of the Violin" saw its way to being named "Classical CD of the Year." This Hollywood Bowl of Fame inductee bowled over audiences, as well by being the first U.S.-born violinist to appear "Live From Lincoln Center" on PBS.

His lively bio also denotes that Bell was the lone U.S. musician ever honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (2007).

The rich rewards of a full life continued earlier this year when the articulate performer — with a violinist's flair for musical articulation — was hailed as "Humanitarian of the Year" by the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, where Bell was accorded a ringing endorsement for two landmark concerts he delivered in Poland last year: One, in Czestochowa, a memorial tribute to that city's Jews deported to Treblinka during the Holocaust; the other in Warsaw, a benefit for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opening in 2012.

Meaningful for the major musician?

Absolutely, avers Bell, also avowing his acceptance of musical work in such a film as "Defiance," which examined Jewish resistance to the Nazis during World War II, as an important credit and accomplishment as well.

Though he himself never had a Bar Mitzvah, Bell's sense of bimah raises its own bar; projects such as those achieved by the Sister Rose endowment accomplish ecumenical understanding, and he is delighted "to be associated with things of a Jewish/Christian effort."

And secular, too, which explains his life lesson plan of taking music to the classroom.

"That is such a passion of mine," says Bell of maintaining music as a bellwether of arts education, despite budget cutbacks in schools nationwide.

Match Point?

Resin as raison d'être ?

Bell belies the image of classical master as weeb/wonk. He has strung other talents together as well, also raising a racquet in tennis, "one of my hobbies," but one at which he was good enough to jump the net and become Indiana's junior tennis champion as a kid. But don't accuse him of wimping out on Wimbledon.

"I am clearly better at violin than tennis," he says, match point made with a laugh.

And if his name — and handsome face — pop out at crowds from the myriad pop cultural lists he has made, Bell believes that "you have to walk a fine line carefully," mediating between being a media icon and maintaining your artistic integrity.

Integral to Bell is accepting musical challenges, but his time is devoted in the main to classical — "That is 95 percent of what I do" — and his upcoming performance with the Philadelphians is no exception, as he will solo on a program featuring Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole."

But if Bell feels like a rubber band, bouncing back in time to memories of a previous performance with the orchestra here, well, he may have been the original rubber-band man — or, in his case, kid.

"I was using a rubber band on my violin for a shoulder rest," he recalls of a concert, and in a matter of bad timing for the timeless musician, "I accidentally let go of it and it hit one of the principal violinists in front of me."


As with all geniuses — albeit, Bell avows, "I feel that term is overused in our society" — he proved to have the ultimate bounce of the unbowed: Coming back even from the bind to have audiences and acolytes snap to attention at the tapping of Bell's classic — and classical — wizardry.

Does he have his art down to a science? String theory: How a master violinist plucks plaudits from the air? The chemistry is there, and it doesn't hurt that the brilliant recording/performance star — lauded for having a halo gracing the hallowed veneer of his violin, and hailed as one who "plays like a god"– happens to look like one, too. 



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