When Joshua Bell performs Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 tonight in Meyerhoff Hall in the first of the Baltimore Symphony's annual "Summerfest" concerts, he will do something that most violinists haven't done for decades: He will perform his own cadenzas.
"I just decided it was something I wanted to do," the 25-year-old violinist says of the places in the score where composers up to and including Beethoven allowed the soloist space to improvise on a concerto's themes. "In the old days, it was something that all violinists did. And it made me feel that someday I'd like to compose my own pieces. Composers -- those are the people I really respect. Anyone who can write something from nothing -- to me that's a hero."
That combination of nostalgia and respect for composers is what makes Bell perhaps the finest American-born violinist since the late Michael Rabin. His craftsmanship compares to that of many other violinists of his generation as the hand-made does to that made by machine. In many respects, he's a throwback whose playing has obviously been influenced by such individualistic past masters as Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman and Toscha Seidel.
Unlike many modern virtuosos, Bell never abuses his instrument, believing that the quality and beauty of sound rather than size and volume are what matter in the concert hall. On the other hand, he's a thoroughly modern violinist in that he tries scrupulously to realize the wishes of the composer. His playing successfully walks a fine line between the individualistic and the conscientious.
"There are people who are so concerned with what is written that it loses freedom," Bell says. "Then there are people who are so obsessed with making a new statement that the music loses a sense of realness and just becomes weird. For me, it's more important to be musically honest and natural, even if I don't produce a performance that blows people away."
Bell evinces a decency, modesty and consideration for others that much resembles his playing. But this clean-cut young man is really not the boy next door. He speaks in spurts because his mind moves so fast. He has excelled in whatever he has tried -- not just the violin, but also tennis (he was a fine junior player), golf, billiards, video games and bowling.
His music-loving parents, who taught psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington, realized they had a gifted child not long after he began to walk. He began the violin early but practiced haphazardly.
Nevertheless, he was so gifted that Josef Gingold, the great violinist and pedagogue who taught at the university, accepted him as a student when he was only 11 -- the youngest student Gingold had ever tutored. Two years later, Bell won a national competition that brought him to the attention of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti. At 14, Bell became the youngest soloist ever to play in Philadelphia's subscription series. He was a full-fledged star before he was 20.
Yet despite his youth, Bell never seemed to be a phenomenon. The only thing that ever attracted undue attention were one or two album covers about five years ago that showed the handsome violinist in jeans. (Like his somewhat older contemporary, the British violinist Nigel Kennedy, Bell attracts a lot of attention from teen-age girls.) But Bell never permitted himself to be hyped; he just went out and played well. There may have been flashier young players, but none, perhaps, as consistently satisfying.
Bell knows how good he is -- there is no false modesty about him -- but he has never ceased to cultivate an attitude of humility toward the music he plays.
"I think my playing has changed a bit -- Mozart especially," he says. "I used to make him sound removed and delicate. I see him now as more filled with contrasts, and I'm not as afraid to dig in. The violin in these pieces so much mimics the operatic voice, and I try to emphasize that dramatic element. I hope my sound has developed more color and variety -- I feel like I'm improving, but there are days when I feel I'm in a slump."
He makes about two records every year, never committing anything to disc before he thinks it's ready. Next year he will record the Brahms Concerto, one of the two greatest pieces for violin and orchestra -- the other is the Beethoven -- for his instrument.
"With the Beethoven, I want to wait longer," Bell says. "I still don't have a performance of Beethoven exactly to my specifications -- I probably never will. But with Brahms at least, I'm getting close."
What: Joshua Bell plays Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 with conductor David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony tonight at 7:30.
Where: Meyerhoff Hall
Tickets: $9, $14 and $24
Call: (410) 783-8000 or (800) 442-1198