Joshua Bell's steady success. A late Stradivarius falls into appreciative, specially talented hands

AT the tender age of 20, violinist Joshua Bell is already a seasoned and acclaimed virtuoso. So maybe it's only natural that his fans and recording company would like to turn him into post-teen matinee idol. The cover of ``Presenting Joshua Bell,'' for instance, shows a color portrait of this boyishly handsome, casually dressed performer with green eyes gazing wistfully at the camera, his recently acquired Stradivarius tucked under his arm.

The real Bell, however, couldn't be less affected. He's a refreshingly modest, unprepossessing performer, who seems slightly embarrassed by all the attention he's been getting. In fact, he's more eager to talk about his newly acquired Strad than about his recent triumphs.

``This is a one-of-a-kind Stradivarius,'' he said excitedly in an interview during a recent visit to New York. ``It's been in collections a lot, because of the unusual shape: It doesn't have corners [opposite the scrolls], and this is really the only one like this. It's a late Strad, in very good condition.''

Bell adds almost sheepishly, ``This is the first instrument I've owned. In the past, I've always counted on borrowing great instruments from people.'' (He played on a loaned Guarneri del Jes`u for his first two recordings.) ``It hasn't been played a lot; so the more I play, the better it's sounding.''

In a field that seems to crave prodigy success stories, Joshua Bell's success has been different - surprisingly steady and low key. His name has been familiar in the small world of violinists from the time he began studying with the legendary Josef Gingold at Indiana University in Bloomington, which also happens to be the young violinist's hometown. By the time he was 15, he had already toured Europe with the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, and by 19 had signed London/Decca Records' first exclusive-artist contract in more than a decade.

The machinery of a major career was set in motion, and now Bell faces the challenging task of maturing within it. His family remains on a farm near Bloomington. Bell recently moved out of a Bloomington condominium, which he shared with roommates, and into his own house. He's also bought himself a sports car. The reason, he hastens to explain, ``is because I love to drive. I didn't get it as a status symbol or anything.''

What seems most remarkable about Bell is how gentle and caring a musician he is and how wide his interests remain in a career that can be all-consuming. Among the hobbies he ticks off: reading and listening to all kinds of music, often on the portable CD player he bought in Japan. And he's just as happy shooting baskets or swatting tennis balls as he is practicing the violin. ``I can't say I've ever been a heavy-duty practicer,'' he notes. ``I know how to practice efficiently, but I can't sit in the room and practice eight hours a day, which many people do.''

What's a normal day for him at home? ``Usually I'm only home for a couple days at a time. ... I spend a lot of time with friends and my teacher, Mr. Gingold. We're very close.''

Asked if the 100 performances he gives each year are too much, Bell says, ``Right now I think it's just right. I don't think I could do more than that. ... Maybe in 10 years or so I might want to cut down. If I have a family or something, then it would be the time to cut down. But now it's really exciting, just right.''

Between concert dates, there are recording sessions. Besides his debut album, he has released a recording of the Bruch/Mendelssohn concertos. And he has taped concertos by Tchaikovsky and Weiniawski, with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra. Next month he will record works by Lalo and Saint-Sa"ens with the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit.

Of course, down the line, he will be asked to record the Brahms and the Beethoven concertos, and this is something he says emphatically he won't do for at least half a decade. ``Right now I'm just going out and playing the Beethoven and the Brahms - just getting lots of performances under my belt, before I record them. For recording, I like to do things that I really feel comfortable with. Even if at one point I [were to] feel that this is the best I can play the Beethoven, then six months later I [would] think, `Whew! I could never have recorded it then.' ... There's just so much to [those pieces] that every time you look at them you see more insights.''

At some point he'd love to commission a composer to write a new concerto for him, and he plans to learn concertos by Bartok, Berg, Stravinsky, because the Prokofiev First is the only 20th-century concerto he plays.

``I learn fairly fast,'' he says. ``When I first played the Beethoven concerto, I learned it and played it in class ... in about a week. This was when I was 15 years old. So I can learn fast, but it doesn't mean that it has settled in my fingers.''

What you notice most about Bell on stage is how much he actually enjoys being there. I ask him what he thinks his on-stage image is. ``A Barbara Walters question! ... When I do perform on stage ... it's a lot of fun, and lot of people say they can tell that. I hope that comes across, and I hope it affects the audience in some way, because that's the way it should be.''

He says that, apart from the house, sports car, and Strad, he doesn't feel his increased earnings have changed him. He says he'll always need to return to the calm of Bloomington to get away from it all.

``I'm very thankful to have grown up there, because it has the saneness of a smaller town. It's not as frantic as a big city, but there is a lot of music. Indiana's got a huge music school and a lot of concerts. My teacher, Josef Gingold, is there, and [cellist] Janos Starker.... There's a lot of music going on; so I had the musical exposure, and I had a pretty normal environment, went to normal schools. If I did get a place [in New York], I'd still keep the place in Bloomington and spend some time there, too.''

Asked whether his growing career is putting undue pressure on him, he says, ``A lot of the pressure is what you allow to affect you. You can spend your life worrying about coming through for everybody, and that people, having heard you, are going to expect you to play that much better. I really just try to concentrate on improving myself, and learning. And luckily I've had great opportunities to be able to play, and I love it so.''

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