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Photo by Timothy White"Hot" is what they call him, or the more colloquial "hottie," or "boyish" or any other adjectives on a long and swoony list. Somehow, the fact that Joshua Bell is considered one of the nation's premier classical violinists gets buried under the Elle magazine articles and People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" spread. But when the 37-year-old Indiana native plays live—floppy brown hair plastered against his forehead, over those gorgeous pools of . . . um, sorry—it's his phenomenal talent and accomplishment that really show through.
When he speaks, you can tell that he's a typical violinist. Bell's rangy mind works like a mathematical sequence, fleeting from thought to thought like a run of notes, never losing that sense of structure and connection. Violinists tend to think lightning fast, unlike, say, sax players, who kind of bat words around and riff their way through chitchat.
"I've made 30 recordings now, but I don't live for recordings," Bell says thoughtfully from his souped-up apartment in New York City (itself the subject of several articles). "I think live performance is where I feel the best and where I play the best. That element of danger and excitement, it's very hard to re-create that in the studio or in front of a microphone."
Excitement and danger will abound in an all-Russian concert at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, complete with orchestral renditions of Stravinsky's "Firebird" and Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture. You've heard—or heard of—them, and so there's also Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor and Tchaikovsky's Meditation in E-flat Major.
"Glazunov is new for me. I'm practicing very hard," Bell says of the composer who single-handedly reconceptualized the violin concerto. "Learning a new concerto is quite a big thing for me. I don't have a coach—my mentor [Josef Gingold] died 10 years ago. At this point I know how to approach the music."
Bell strikes envy into the heart of many a violinist with words like these, and then he also mentions that he doesn't always practice that much—telling me modestly that he needs an afternoon to dust off the infamous Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D for performance. Bell's playing, which never lacks emotion, comes set against a glossy technique—no surprise, since his idol is Jascha Heifetz. He also drives a Porsche 911 and has a casual kind of fashion sense: open collars, messy surfer hair and the occasional foray into black leather.
When he plays, he plots: plans out the direction of the phrase and progression, surprising and developing the journey through uncharted terra firma.
"I do think a lot about phrasing and where the notes are going," he says. "Every note is coming from somewhere and going somewhere and has a purpose—just like a play, every word has a purpose."
But it's how he conveys that purpose that makes all the hype so justified. And hot.