Joshua Bell and the nature of classical music superstardom

Joshua Bell, Superstar/Photo by Chris Lee

By James McQuillen

The Oregon Symphony’s current subscription season includes among its guest soloists half a dozen violinists, some of them little-known to Portland audiences: Elina Vähälä, Karen Gomyo, Stefan Jackiw. Others are bona fide celebrities with at least some name recognition among the general public: Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg. One, Joshua Bell, is a superstar. What’s the difference, and what difference does it make?

Bell is undeniably among the greatest violinists playing today, as he has demonstrated in several appearances with the Oregon Symphony, most recently in finely focused performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto (you’ll have another chance to hear him soon, as he opens the Oregon Bach Festival with the Mendelssohn Concerto June 29 in Eugene and June 30 in Portland). His tone is beautiful and beautifully controlled, and his interpretations persuasive; his impeccable technique and sense of detail make him an ideal collaborator for OSO music director Carlos Kalmar.

Playing brilliantly in itself doesn’t make you a star, though. Lots of violinists play brilliantly, including ones you’ve never heard of. Critics throw superlatives at Bell all the time—“the greatest American violinist active today,” “the most perfect interpreter of his generation”—but there’s no qualitative measure of musical greatness, so not everyone will agree. Listening blind, you wouldn’t mistake him for Perlman, for example, who has a fatter sound with wider vibrato and more liberal portamento, but both have their devotees.

Beyond his appearances with orchestras, in which he offers both the core concerto repertoire and the occasional new work, Bell’s accomplishments are numerous and his reach is long. He does recital tours and has recorded extensively (the latest of his more than three dozen discs, French Impressions, a set of sonatas recorded with frequent recital partner Jeremy Denk, came out last week). Last year he was named the music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, succeeding its founder, Neville Marriner. He makes arrangements and composes his own cadenzas, including the show-stopper in the Brahms last weekend.

Within the classical music world, that would be impressive enough, but few musicians—Yo-Yo Ma is the only contemporary example who comes to mind—have achieved such a high profile outside it.

Bell has recorded soundtracks for many films, from The Red Violin to Flowers of War; he has collaborated with other musicians including pan-genre bassist Edgar Meyer, singer-songwriter Josh Groban, and sitarist-composer Anoushka Shankar. And he’s been a newsmaker: in 2007 he was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post piece by Gene Weingarten, who asked him to play in a Washington, D.C. metro station and wrote about the reactions of passing commuters (ironically, this bit of wide public exposure for Bell was about how he was ignored).

Finally, on top of his accomplishments and collaborations, Bell has charisma. An all-American-looking guy from Bloomington, Indiana—the Hoosier Heifetz—he was a junior tennis champ who, at 44, retains his boyish good looks. People magazine named him one of “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World”; USA Weekend proclaimed, “Hot, young and single, Joshua Bell makes classical music sexy.”

(That said, when he came on stage for his latest appearance with the Oregon Symphony, I noted that his hair looks suspiciously youthful and was reminded of the old Clairol slogan, “Does she…or doesn’t she?” Judging from recent publicity photos, I’d have to say, “Oh, yes he does.”)

What a musician’s stardom means for symphony orchestras is simple: it enables them to achieve their twin goals of making great music and selling tickets. It comes at a price, which in Bell’s case the Oregon Symphony declined to specify.

As Jim Fullan, the orchestra’s vice president in charge of communications and marketing, explained, “The subject of artists’ fees is an understandably sensitive area… However, two things are certainly true: artists like Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and a very few others earn considerably more than our other talented guest soloists; and they correspondingly bring in considerably more ticket revenue as well. We—and our audiences—find it a winning combination.”

Those tickets sell even if compromises are involved. Bell was originally scheduled to play Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto two weekends ago, an intense work not frequently programmed, but announced a month before the concerts that he’d be playing the Brahms instead. Some fans were disappointed (see the comments to violist Charles Noble’s post about it); it meant a missed opportunity to hear what Bell would do with the piece during a season that already included warhorses by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bruch, and it also compromised the integrity of a program that would have been a sequel to “Music for a Time of War,” which got the OSO invited to Carnegie Hall last May.

I asked Bell about the substitution (in a conference call with three other critics, not the usual one-on-one—another sign of his star status). “Uh, yeah… it’s a little delicate, that one,” he said. “The Shostakovich is new for me, I have yet ever to perform it, and when we schedule these things two or three years ahead of time, it came down closer to the time, it didn’t fit in. I had so many things piled up on my schedule, and the other places where I thought I’d also play the Shostakovich fell through, and so I ended up with a single place to play it, and it didn’t make sense any more to juggle all the other repertoire I was doing.”

It’s safe to say that the switch didn’t make it any harder for the symphony to sell seats. Nor will the Bach Festival likely have trouble selling tickets to Bell’s concerts, even though he’s playing one of the most familiar of concertos, the Mendelssohn.

Some audiences will still get to hear him play the Shostakovich—he’s planning on touring with it next season—but it won’t be here, at least not for a while. He’s a star, which means that while he’s representing classical music beyond its normally insular world, everyone wants a piece of him, and you take what you can get.

10 Responses.

  1. Carl Herko says:

    Anne Midgette did a great story in the Washington Post last summer comparing the programming at Wolf Trap today with when it opened in the ’70s. This part, especially, stuck with me:

    Ann McKee, Wolf Trap’s senior vice president for performing arts and education, has been at Wolf Trap for 37 years. “When I started out here,” she says, “two hands full of fingers wouldn’t have been enough to count the number of superstars, conductors, composers and soloists who could fill a house on their name alone. Tell me who they are now. A handful or less.

    “Because there are so few marquee names . . . they’re incredibly overexposed in the market. I adore Yo-Yo [Ma] and Itzhak [Perlman] and Josh Bell, but if they’re not performing with us, they’re at the Kennedy Center or WPAS or George Mason. I want a fabulous talent who will sell tickets, but how many tickets can they sell in the same market in a single year?”

  2. curtis heikkinen says:

    I was one of those people who was very disappointed by Bell’s decison to substitute a warhorse for the less frequently performed concerto. For me, the piece being performed is more important than the performer. Don’t get me wrong. I do want to hear a good soloist. However, there are plenty of lesser known soloists who can do about as a good job as Bell. If they are willing to perform an interesting, lessor-known work, I would rather hear that than a big name like Bell give yet another rendition of a warhorse like the Brahms. Unfortunaely, it appears that my view is not shared by many, which does lead to my frustration with the state of classical music. I envy Bell’s clout that enables him to change what he had previously agreed to play when it became inconvenient to abide by his agreement. However, my admiration for him has dropped considerably. Frankly, if he did not appear again in Portland it would not cause me to lose any sleep.

  3. bob priest says:

    i would love to see ‘n’ hear bell play corigliano’s “red violin concerto” in pdx sometime.

    and, i would likely babble in incoherent delight if yo-yo ma brought lutoslawski’s incredible “cello concerto” to town during 2013 – luto’s 100th birth year.

    whether either of these wet-dream programs manifest or not, you better believe i enjoyed sharing these delicious fantasies with y’all just now!

    additionally, perhaps the next time leila josefowicz scorches the schnitz, she will bring esa-pekka salonen’s blow-out of a violin concerto along for the ride?

    ok, ok, basta for now.

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    Thanks for bringing that up, Carl. The number of musicians that casual fans of classical music know has declined a lot, I think, as has knowledge of the classical music world by the general public. And that has big ramifications.

    Curtis, I still want the best of all possible worlds — Bell playing something I really want to hear. But I think I agree with you. Give me the more interesting piece of music over the soloist.

    Bob, you can bring your fantasies to these parts any time!

  5. Greg Ewer says:

    Too bad contemporary conservatories of music don’t require performance majors to take serious composition classes. If they did, we might be able to enjoy the occasional virtuoso playing his or her own masterpiece. Imagine a Joshua Bell with the compositional skills of a William Bolcom. Now that’s something I’d pay to hear.

  6. James McQuillen says:

    I’m with Curtis, essentially. I was disappointed not to hear the Shostakovich, and while Bell’s performance of the Brahms was great, I wasn’t moved or amazed by it. I’d rather hear, say, Jennifer Koh play the Szymanowski again.

    Greg, Bell did tell me that he’s been working more seriously on composition and suggested that he’d like to go from writing cadenzas (which he’s been doing) to tackling a sonata or some such.

  7. James McQuillen says:

    Breaking: I was wrong! Bell’s publicist has informed me that he does not, in fact, color his hair. From which I can only conclude that the Oregon Symphony’s program book designer did some heavy-duty darkening on the cover photo. Apologies to all concerned, and my punishment is apparently that I get to have the gray hair that should rightfully be his, at his age.

  8. bob priest says:

    i’m quite excited to learn of bell’s composerly aspirations. wouldn’t it be great to have another paganini or ysaye – at least, sort of?

    in a recent after-concert talk with leila josefowicz & salonen in frisco, EP was commenting on how stunned he was that leila showed up @ the first rehearsal of his violin concerto with it memorized AND was able to point out a few problem passages in the orchestra during the first run-through.

    a few minutes later, leila confessed that she is somewhat of a closet composer & hopes to write some of her own music sometime down the road.

    oh, leila, you win my heart AGAIN!


  9. Phillip says:

    Great article, though I think you didn’t quite pin down Mr. Fullan on whether the increase in ticket revenue for a “superstar” soloist really pays for the exponentially higher soloist fee. Then, one gets into the question of why ask for public arts funding to help support the inflated fees of the so-called superstars.

    About the hair: It hasn’t seemed to me that Mr. Bell dyes his hair, but since you did raise the topic…c’mon Josh, you’re 44! Enough already with the same haircut you had in Gingold’s master classes as a pre-teen! Unlike some of us, you’ve got a great head of hair still to work with. Time for a new look! 😉

  10. Bruce says:

    I also thought there was something to the idea that superstars function in two ways for a symphony. They are either presented in a Gala with very high ticket prices that cover those extra costs, or as part of a season, which in it’s very nature is designed to lose money on some artists (like these superstars) so they can sell subscriptions to make money of several other less expensive artists. To suggest that these great artists actually cover their costs on an individual concert (or a weekend of concerts…and several don’t do doubles or more) would mean that every orchestra would be trying to book a whole season of them, one after the other, and watching the money roll in. Since this isn’t happening, I think we must question whether on a concert by concert basis these artists are covering their large fees.

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