The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: Superstar violinist Joshua Bell talks about the importance of music education and reaching people in unusual places — like subways. Plus, his terrific new all-Bach CD merits your attention. | October 4, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

The perennially boyish Joshua Bell, now a veteran of the concert stage and recording studio for more than 25 years, is in his third season as the artistic director of the famed British chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

joshua Bell

Sony Classical has just released his new recording – which has a program that is all by Johann Sebastian Bach (below). It features two violin concertos plus three arrangements, including the famous Chaconne from the Solo Partita No. 2, for violin and orchestra. (His previous release as conductor and concertmaster of the ASMF players was a fine reading of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven.)

And despite his Pretty Boy status, Bell — who has performed recitals here at the Wisconsin Union Theater and concertos with the Madison Symphony Orchestra — once again shows himself to be a gifted and serious musician. The Ear finds that he makes sense of notes that often get passed over by other violinists. Bells finds patterns in scales of climbing notes that help give the music momentum and melodic appeal. When he wants, Bell can be absolutely revelatory.

The Ear is not alone in his admiration for Bell at his best. Read the review by New York Times critic Steve Smith when Bell performed the glorious Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at this past summer’s “Mostly Mozart” Festival.

Joshua Bell Bach CD cover

But perhaps the achievement these days it that Bell has become an adamant advocate of music education.

Joshua Bell with students

In that capacity he recently was featured in a 30-minute HBO special program about master classes with 9 students.

The Ear recently heard and saw him defend music education as a means not just to raise musicians but to give student more self-esteem and self-confidence. Playing music also brings other benefits, he adds, from better grades and a better sense of teamwork to a lower likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse.

But it is best to let Joshua Bell speak for himself.

Here is a link to an interview his did with NPR or National Public Radio:

And here is a link to a television interview Bell did with reporter Jeffrey Brown of PBS’ The NewsHour as well as to the second, and final, subway appearance. (You may recall how his first anonymous appearance, at the bottom in a popular YouTube video with more than 5 million hits, made such a splash and even won the reporter a Pulitzer Prize.)

Here is a 10-question video interview Bell did with Time magazine, in which he also discusses his love of gambling, his $5-million violin and possible alternative career choices:

And here is the original “anonymous” “Stop and Hear the Music” subway busking “concert” with more than 5 million hits:

Do you have any thoughts about Joshua Bell?

The Ear wants to hear. 


  1. I read the Times report and wish I could hear a recording of him playing the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. Thirty-seven years ago this month it was my “strike theme” as I headed out to the picket line at Madison Newspapers Inc. in October, 1977. The first movement is bustling and exuberant, as we all were. The second, slow movement is full of doubt and anguish, which we experienced as the days advanced through a historically brutal winter and privations became more painful.

    The final, movement is, as a friend of mine on the picket line said at the time, “hack work,” Mozart putting on a happy face, saying, “Never mind,” trying to put the suffering behind him with a superficial happy ending.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — October 4, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    • Hi Ron,
      All interesting personal ties.
      But the final movement of that gorgeous work for violin, viola and orchestra is not hack work.
      It is the form of a rondo that Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and even Beethoven used for final movements.
      It was part of a musicological and historical tradition that was not meant to negate what came before.
      At least that is how I understand it, no matter how it felt or seemed to you at the time and in those circumstances.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 4, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

      • Actually it’s a presto movement not a rondo (I had to look it up but was pretty sure it wasn’t waltz-like). And I agree it is thoroughly and competently Mozart. But it is not imbued with soul and longing like the adagio that precedes it. I came up with a phrase: it is a recovery movement. It is like the concluding rondo of the oboe quartet, which the listener needs to regain equilibrium after the heartbreaking slow movement. Mozart took opportunities to expose his dark side, but he liked to finish as an entertainer.

        The presto from the sinfonia concertante for violin and viola was used in the ’70s as the theme music for a long-running classical music program on Wisconsin Public Radio, perhaps “Afternoon Classics.” That may have contributed to my impression of it as commonplace and just chipper.

        Comment by Ron McCrea — October 9, 2014 @ 8:17 am

      • All good points, Ron.
        But according to what I looked up and have experienced personally, rondo is a form or style of music, not a tempo and not a dance form like a waltz.
        A rondo movement often concludes a Classical work and is often marked Allegro, but Presto is acceptable too.
        The point is exactly to provide major contrast with what precedes it, especially if it has deep pathos as in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and to end on a lighter note. But I wouldn’t call that entertainment-centered, which sounds belittling although perhaps you did not mean it to sound that way. It mixes moods for the entire work, like a set of songs that has ballads and upbeat tunes.
        For players, it can also be used to provide a quasi-virutosic display vehicle as a “closer.”
        Your main point about recovery is the important fact.
        Contrast was the ruling esthetic of the day.
        At least we can agree that the movement isn’t hack work.
        Thanks for reading, commenting and researching.

        Comment by welltemperedear — October 9, 2014 @ 8:41 am

  2. Clone him!

    Comment by slfiore — October 4, 2014 @ 7:24 am

    • Hi Susan,
      Short and to the point!
      I suspect that I and many others agree,
      for a variety of reasons!

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 4, 2014 @ 7:43 am

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