You find interesting things in Indiana, including the former farms of Bill Monroe, Larry Bird and Cole Porter. Really. And in Bloomington, you'll find the musical roots of everyone from John Mellencamp to Joshua Bell. Bell, who has a PBS special Friday (Dec. 16) is an interesting guy; here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
Let's say your
mad-scientist goal is to blend opposite forces – to make a
classical-music superstar who is still .... well, sort of normal.
Where do you start?
Try Bloomington, Indiana.
That's where Joshua
Bell – who has a PBS special Friday – grew up. “I tell that to
some people in Europe (and) they say, 'Oh, you're from the middle of
nowhere,'” he said. Still, it offered:
-- An unrushed pace,
where he could try many things. “I played a lot of sports,” Bell
said. “I played tennis (and) basketball.”
music. Indiana University's music school has a top reputation and
about 1,600 students. “It's, I think, the largest in the country.”
second-largest; North Texas often edges it out. Either way, his
parents found it by accident.
Bell's dad, a
psychotherapist, had taken a job at the Kinsey Institute for Sex
Research – another thing you don't expect to find in Indiana. Once
his parents moved there, Bell said, “they were surprised to see
this music, because they love music.”
Bell started violin
lessons at 4, had several top teachers from the university and at 12
began studying with Josef Gingold, considered a master. By then, he
-- Done his first
solo recital at 11, which included a dizzyingly difficult piece by
-- Prospered in
tennis. At 10, one account says, he was fourth in his age group in a
It was possible to
do both, Bell said, because he was blessed with a knack for intense
“My mother used to
drop me off at the Indiana University Music School and I'd go in the
front door and she'd say, 'I'll see you in five hours.' And then I'd
go out the back door and literally play Pac-Man and all those things
in the '80s for about four of those hours .... I actually learned how
to really cram
worked. At 14, he soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra; at 17, he
was in Carnegie Hall, soloing with the St. Louis Symphony.
That was also the
year he signed his first record deal, eventually moving to Sony
Classical. He's had seven albums reach No. 1 on Billboard's classical
charts, winning two Grammys.
He's become a media
event, from playing the Sarasate piece for Johnny Carson at 21 to
doing soundtracks for movies -- “Music of the Heart,” “The Red
Violin” and “Ladies in Lavender.”
These days, Bell
lives in Manhattan and has three daughters and a 303-year-old
Stradivarius violin worth millions. But he also has that Indiana
manner and, at 49, a youthful look.
That makes him
logical for some cultural outreach. “Earlier this year, Joshua
traveled to Cuba as part of an historic cultural mission initiated by
Barack Obama,” said PBS producer Andrew Wilk.
With Dave Matthews,
Smokey Robinson, Usher and others, he met Cubans and jammed with some
of them. That included the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, with
musicians in their early 20s, Bell said. “They played
fantastically. I was so impressed with them – their spirit and
Afterward, he talked
Wilk into a concert special that includes that group, other Cuban
musicians and Matthews. This one isn't live, but it is at the Lincoln
Center, under the banner of “Live From the Lincoln Center,” which
Wilk produces and Bell has done several times.
With “my parents,
that was a regular thing,” he said. “We sat around and watched
live Lincoln Center programs.” There they were – a tennis player
and a sex therapist – watching classical concerts from
half-a-continent away. At that point, Indiana didn't seem like the
middle of nowhere.
-- “Life From the
Lincoln Center: Joshua Bell's Seasons of Cuba”
-- 9 p.m. Friday,
PBS (check local listings)