FINGERS FLYING WITH FEVERED resolve, Joshua Bell displays all the dexterity and focus that make him the virtuoso violinist he is. True, he isn’t soaring on his Strad—he’s online, locked in a video game called Duke Nukem, the object of which is to annihilate various computer-generated enemies with weapons of mass destruction. At this he is so adroit that he is feared by combatants around the globe as the Nukester. “You’re completely immersed in this world—it’s really cool,” Bell says, adding with a laugh, “unfortunately, it means going on the Internet and ‘killing’ people.”
Planetary domination: It was an inevitable step, really. At 29, Bell remains essentially that kid you hated in high school: so charming, so gifted, so appallingly perfect. He is that rare prodigy who matured into a world-class musician, an acclaimed interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He is also a former Indiana youth tennis champion, an ace poker player—and, oh, he studies physics in his spare time. Then there’s his fan club. Though he’ll never pose nude with his violin, he is something of a gen-X sex symbol, drawing crowds of female admirers—who would gleefully dislodge Lisa Matricardi, 29, Bell’s girlfriend and fellow violinist, from the couple’s pricey Manhattan apartment.
“Josh has a huge career, and he deserves it,” says conductor André Previn. “He plays with a great deal of commitment, but he doesn’t grandstand. That’s remarkable in a young virtuoso.” Adds David Zinman, music director of the Baltimore Symphony: “What makes him unique is his intensity. The music, in a sense, is life or death for him.”
Bell has always been driven, even growing up on a Bloomington, Ind., farm, the son of psychologist Alan Bell and his wife, Shirley, an educational counselor. “Whether it was Rubik’s Cube, chess, computers, the violin,” says his mother, “there was a need to master his environment.” Little Josh was about 2 when he discovered stringed instruments—actually rubber bands he’d stretch across his dresser knobs. “By opening the drawers to different degrees, I could make them play at different pitches,” he recalls. His parents gave him his first fiddle when he was 5, but they never pushed music on him. “I was a normal kid, went to public schools and played a lot of sports,” says Bell, who was 10 when he won a state tennis crown.
Bell’s life’s course was set at 12, when he was accepted to study with celebrated violin teacher Josef Gingold at the Indiana University School of Music. “He was like a grandfather to me,” says Bell, who at 14 won a national competition for young musicians and shortly thereafter made his professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, causing a sensation with his performance of Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto. “Actually it was annoying to be labeled a prodigy,” says Bell. “Everything was ‘the young Joshua Bell’ It becomes a circus act.”
Maturity brought its own burdens. After touring several years, Bell signed an exclusive recording contract with London Records—which peddled him as an upmarket teen idol through a VH-1 video and some hunkish CD cover photos. The buildup brought a critical backlash. “It took several years,” says Bell, “to get people over the thought that I was a promotional flash in the pan and earn their respect.”
Rapture is more like it; some of his clippings read like wine labels. “Passionately expressive and angelically pure,” wrote the Baltimore Sun critic, and The New York Times reviewer hailed his “sensuous application of portamento.” Taking it up a notch, Interview proclaimed that Bell’s playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” Bell, who tours 200 days a year, recently signed a recording contract with Sony and last month played his first solo recital at Carnegie Hall.
Despite his ascent from prodigy to heartthrob to international master, Bell feels his celebrity is not all it might be. “I wouldn’t want to be like someone in the rock business, where everyone knows who you are,” he says, “[but] a little more fame would be okay.”
Not that, in some quarters at least, he hasn’t already arrived at the pinnacle. Some years ago, back home in Bloomington, a 12-year-old boy approached him on the street and announced, “You’re Joshua Bell. You’re famous,” Bell recalls. “I said, ‘Well, umm, not really’ And the kid went, ‘Yes, really. Your name is on every video game in the arcade as the highest scorer.’ ”
ELIZABETH MCNEIL in New York City