Making his way to South Africa this September, Joshua Bell forms part of the highly anticipated line-up for the 2015 RMB Starlight Classics Concert.
On 27 January 2007, a busker played a 45-minute set at a Washington Metro station. He earned approximately $32 from some 27 passersby, before packing up his $4 million dollar Stradivarius and leaving the station.
Ironically, this brief incognito performance was to make a household name of Joshua Bell, long since critically acclaimed by lovers of classical music. In fact, only a few months after the Metro experiment, Bell was awarded the Avery Fisher prize at Lincoln Centre in New York, presented to classical musicians for outstanding achievement.
Bell was something of a child prodigy. He began playing the violin aged four, shortly after his parents found him trying to create music using elastic bands stretched around the handles of several dresser drawers, and attempting to mimic his mother’s piano tunes.
He possessed a phenomenal natural ability: at an age when most children who take up the violin stumble through a rendition of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’, Bell is said to have read through and played pieces by the likes of Paganini. Later on, he progressed quickly, despite putting in a fraction of the hours usually demanded from young, would-be violinists.
His innate talent made it possible for Bell to maintain a ‘normal’ childhood, reportedly bunking lessons to rack up several ‘highest scores ever’ at the local video arcade, and succeeding in coming fourth in a national tennis tournament, aged ten. His ‘regular’ upbringing convinced renowned violin teacher Josef Gingold to take him on as a student, and their shared love of music established a bond that ultimately cemented Bell’s dedication to the instrument.
At age 14, Bell won a national talent competition, leading to his debut as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti – along with professional management. With this achievement, he went on to study violin at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (where Gingold was a professor) and graduated with an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance.
Bell made his first appearance at Carnegie Hall aged 17, playing alongside the St Louis symphony. From then on, he has taken to the stage around the world accompanied by foremost orchestras and conductors, performing both standard concerto repertoire and new works. He has recorded more than 40 CDs since his first release (aged 18), for which he has won a host of accolades and awards.
Critics rave about his performances, declaring him ‘the most perfect interpreter of this generation’; ‘the greatest American violinist active today’; and ‘a commanding, deeply musical, technically breathtaking performer’. John Corigliano, whose Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin was played by Bell, puts it more simply: ‘Joshua Bell plays like a god’.
Like the instrument at the centre of The Red Violin, Bell’s Stradivarius is famed for its long, tumultuous history. Now more than 300 years old, it once belonged to Bronislaw Huberman, himself a child prodigy. Huberman has been credited with rescuing hundreds of Jewish musicians from Hitler’s grasp. In the 1930s, he founded the Palestinian Symphony Orchestra, thus providing musicians and their families with both the motivation and means to leave Germany, and take up employment in what was then Palestine. In 1936, the violin was stolen from Huberman – for the second time. It remained in the possession of the thief, Joshua Altman, until his death when his wife returned the instrument to Lloyds of London. They sold it to British violinist Nobert Brainin, who in turn was set to sell the violin to a collector. Appalled, Bell rushed in, buying the instrument for close to $4 million.
Unlike many child prodigies, Bell has gone from strength to strength. Since 2011, he has served as Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Field. He is also an artistic partner for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
In 2015, the star violinist’s line-up includes, among other things, a tour to South Africa. Although Bell is regrettably unlikely to be caught busking for Gautrain passengers, he will be performing at this year’s RMB Starlight Classics, alongside
South African born and internationally acclaimed opera sensation Pretty Yende. Now that’s a stellar experience!