The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is, quite rightly, the primary star of Thursday's centennial concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall — 100 years to the day since the ensemble debuted. But a little extra star power doesn't hurt.
Joining music director Marin Alsop and the BSO will be one of the most gifted and popular violinists on the scene, Joshua Bell. He'll be the soloist in the Suite from Bernstein's "West Side Story" (arranged by William David Brohn), a work Bell recorded 15 years ago with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by former BSO music director David Zinman.
"I've always loved the Meyerhoff," Bell says. "I have many fond memories of every concert [I played there] with David Zinman, one of my favorites. And I love 'West Side Story.' I have started playing the Suite again. After I recorded it, I dropped it for many years."
Bell most recently appeared with the BSO a decade ago, playing John Corigliano's Violin Concerto ("The Red Violin") with Alsop conducting. They also made a recording of the work.
"That concerto has been very central to my career," Bell says. "It's very meaningful to me."
After the centennial concert, the Indiana-born violinist will stay through the weekend, performing Tchaikovsky's evergreen Violin Concerto at Meyerhoff and the Music Center at Strathmore in the BSO's first subscription program of its second century.
In addition to making music with the BSO over the years, starting in 1991, the perennially youthful-looking, 48-year-old Bell has an even more personal connection to the orchestra. You could say he's a father because of it.
"I met my girlfriend [violinist Lisa Matricardi], who I was with for many years, when she was playing as a sub in the orchestra [in the early 1990s]," Bell says. "She's the mother of my children. My three kids wouldn't be here if not for the Baltimore Symphony."
(Although Bell and Matricardi split up in 1999, they remained friends. They both were interested in being parents and decided to fulfill that goal together. They live separately in New York, but near each other, and share in the raising of their three sons — the first born in 2007, followed by twins in 2010.)
Besides fiddling in recitals and as a soloist with great orchestras, Bell has been doing a good deal of conducting.
He was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the excellent, much-recorded orchestra based in London, in 2011. Bell generally leads that ensemble from the concertmaster's chair; in violin concertos, he does double duty. (He and the orchestra visit the Music Center at Strathmore next month.)
If the BSO were to invite Bell for a conducting engagement, would he accept?
"I'm game," he says. "I would want to do something I know very well. I've been concentrating on the Beethoven symphonies and have done all but a couple of them. I am having the time of my life."
In between all the music-making, the violinist has squeezed in cameo appearances on the Golden Globe Award-winning Amazon television series "Mozart in the Jungle." It's based on oboist Blair Tindall's 2005 memoir of the same name, subtitled "Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music."
The series is "something musicians can all relate to, though I'm sure there's a bit of exaggeration," Bell says. "This show can keep classical music somewhat in the popular culture, showing that it is not so isolated and exclusive, which is great. I haven't watched the whole series. I haven't even seen the ones I'm in; I'm too afraid to watch myself."
As "Mozart in the Jungle" attempts to illustrate, the life of a classical musician can get — and stay — awfully stressful. Bell, who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 as a teen and maintains a jammed touring schedule, seems to handle it all with aplomb.
"I think my personality is suited to the pressures — the nerves backstage, the amount of pressure that can happen just getting onstage day after day," the violinist says. "I am actually happier when I'm busy. It makes me feel alive. If I have a week off to contemplate my mortality, I'm less happy."
Bell's extra-musical interests also provide relief. A big video game player as a kid, he now follows football intensely. ("Sorry about the Ravens," he says.)
The violinist also keeps things interesting by varying his musical diet. Over the years, he has ventured into bluegrass with bassist Edgar Meyer and jazz with trumpeter Chris Botti, for example.
"When I worked with Edgar Meyer, who I went to school with [at Indiana University], it was a natural thing," Bell says. "And I learned so much from him and his friends. I became a better musician because of it. This summer, I'll do more concerts with Chris Botti. I like bringing a violin to his audience, which would not necessarily go to my concerts. I think some of that translates into different people checking out a symphony concert."
Might there be more genre-stretching in Bell's future? A little hip-hop, perhaps?
"A couple things in that department have been suggested to me, actually," Bell says. "But it's got to feel right."
Bell's most famous ventures outside his normal range came in 2007 when, as an experiment that generated a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post story, he played incognito in a Metro station for (very few) handouts.
"It took on a life of its own," Bells says of that event.
If he'd ever like to do something like that again, he could always try his luck in Baltimore's modest subway while in town for his BSO gigs.
"That was a one-time thing for me," Bell says. "That's it for me in the underground."