LSO International Violin Festival: Meet Joshua Bell

One of the most celebrated violinists of his era, Joshua Bell's restless creativity and passion have earned him the title of 'classical music superstar'. We find out more about him, Sibelius' Violin Concerto and his Stradivarius in this blog.

Joshua Bell

jbell childJoshua Bell was born in Bloomington, Indiana, United States; his mother was a therapist and his father a psychologist. Bell took up the violin aged four, after his mother found that he had taken rubber bands and stretched them across a draw to pluck out the music he had heard her play on the piano. Ten years later, he appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. Bell studied violin at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and, in 1989, received an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance. He made his professional debut at 17, performing with the St Louis Symphony in Carnegie Hall.

Joshua Bell has been honoured with several awards including: the Distinguished Alumni Service Award from Indiana University (1991), Indiana Governor's Arts Award, and the Avery Fisher Prize (2007). He has been named an 'Indiana Living Legend'. 

Bell won a Grammy in 1993 for his recording of Nicholas Maw's Violin Concerto (which Bell, the dedicatee, premiered). He has performed on several film soundtracks, including the solo part on John Corigliano's Oscar-winning soundtrack for the film The Red Violin, plus Ladies in Lavender, Music of the Heart (a story about the power of music) and violin solos in Hans Zimmer's score for the 2009 film Angels & Demons based on Dan Brown's 2000 novel of the same name). In 2013, Bell performed the song Before My Time, alongside Scarlett Johansson; written by J Ralph for the documentary Chasing Ice. The song received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

In 2007, Joshua Bell took part in an experiment initiated by The Washington Post, performing incognito as a busker at a subway station in Washington. The experiment was filmed with a hidden camera, and of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen to him, and only one recognised him. In 45 minutes, Bell collected $32.17 from 27 passers-by (excluding the $20 he got from the person who recognised him!). The story earned the writer, Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize. You can watch a clip of the experiment below.

LSO History

Joshua Bell made his LSO debut in 1988, performing Bruch Violin Concerto under Yuro Ahronovitch at the Barbican. Since then he has performed several times, including two performances of Brahms Violin Concerto, once under Sir Mark Elder and another under Valery Gergiev, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto under Horia Andreescu. This weekend Joshua Bell will perform Sibelius' Violin Concerto under Pablo Heras-Casado; he will be back with the LSO in March 2016 performing Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with conductor Alan Gilbert.

The Concerto

Jean Sibelius studied the violin from the age of 14, and for the next ten years his overriding ambition was to become a great virtuoso. However, he had neither the temperament nor coordination for such a career and, shortly after starting at the Helsinki Institute, composition became the only thing for him. Sibelius never totally lost his first love, the violin, which explains why this is the only concerto he wrote.

Written in 1903, the concerto had a rough premiere, with a bad performance from Victor Novácek and not one, but two, terrible reviews from critic Karl Flodin (who was generally favourable to Sibelius!). Sibelius later revised the work – shortening it, taking out the cadenza, and changing the end of the second movement. Sibelius' wife, Aino, preferred the original and, in recent years, this version has been performed and recorded. 

Now the most recorded concerto of the 21st century, Aino reveals how inspired Jean was whilst writing the work: 'He has such a multitude of themes in his head that he has been literally quite dizzy. He stays awake all night, plays incredibly beautifully, cannot tear himself away from the delightful melodies - he has so many ideas that it is hard to believe it. And all the themes are so capable of development, full of life.'

The Violin

bell violinJoshua Bell plays the 1713 'Huberman' Stravidarius. Named after the virtuoso violinist Brownisław Huberman, this violin was famously stolen from a dressing room in Carnegie Hall in 1936, whilst Huberman was on stage using his other violin (a Guarnerius, which is now used by Midori). The instrument remained missing until 1985, when journeyman violinist Julian Altman, known for his 'scruffy tuxedo and even scruffier violin', revealed to his wife on his deathbed that it was he who had stolen the Stradivarius. He'd disguised it with black shoe polish and had been performing on it in New York bars and clubs for almost half a century! Following this discovery, Altman's wife returned the violin to the insurance company, Lloyd's of London, who, incredibly, paid her a finders fee of $263,000. J & A Beare undertook the nine month restoration process, they compared it to 'taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel'. You can read the full story of the theft on Joshua Bell's website.

'I went into a room with it and within 30 seconds I knew it had to be my violin,' Bell told The Strad in 2013. 'For some reason it felt easier to play and more in tune than the one I'd been playing on for years. I have yet to find another violin that comes close.' 

'As [the violin] was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection. However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired.'

The violin is a visually stunning example from Stradivarius' 'golden period'; the varnish (minus the shoe polish!) is a deep, intense red colour and tonally it gives a robust, warm sound with a singing brilliance in the treble range. 


Some excerpts originally printed in The Strad and re-printed with permission.

Joshua Bell appears in the LSO International Violin Festival at the Barbican on Sunday 28 June, performing Sibelius Violin Concerto.
Buy tickets to the concert - RETURNS ONLY

If you've enjoyed the LSO International Violin Festival, we've got plenty more violin concerts lined up for next season!

> Leila Josefowicz - John Adams, Scheherazade.2 UK Premiere (Thu 29 Oct 2015, 7.30pm)
Nicola Benedetti - Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto UK Premiere (Fri 6 Nov 2015, 7.30pm)
> Leonidas Kavakos - Dutilleux L'arbre des songes (Wed 13 Jan 2016, 7.30pm)
Renuad Capuçon - Berg Violin Concerto (Sun 24 Jan 2016, 7pm)
Janine Jansen - Shostakovich Violin Concerto (Sun 28 Feb 2016, 7pm)
Anne-Sophie Mutter - Brahms Violin Concerto (Wed 9 Mar 2016, 7.30pm)
Christian Tetzlaff - Sibelius Violin Concerto (Wed 16 Mar 2016, 7.30pm)
Joshua Bell - Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (Sun 3 Apr 2016, 7.30pm)
Viktoria Mullova - Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 (Thu 19 May 2016, 7.30pm)
Nikolaj Znaider - Beethoven Violin Concerto (Sun 29 May 2016, 7.30pm)
> Lisa Batiashvili - Bartók Violin Concerto No 1 (Thu 9 Jun 2016, 7.30pm)