In a room high above Third Street, two dozen students in the Jacobs School of Music found their places around a table. Conversation was hushed as the head seat — reserved for Grammy-winning violinist and IU alumnus Joshua Bell — remained empty.
Then Bell entered the room with a Diet Coke in hand to dish out advice and insights about the changing landscape of classical music.
In the midst of a busy touring season, the virtuoso violinist stopped in to reflect on the importance of forging new connections with artists.
“Playing the same concerto with orchestras a hundred times is fine,” Bell said. “I’ve been blessed to be making a living that way. However, at this point in my career it’s important to expand my repertoire and reinvent what I’m doing.”
In 2016, a significant step in this direction came after the death of Sir Neville Marinner, director of London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Bell stepped up to the plate, but with a twist: He began leading the orchestra from his chair as concertmaster, or first violinist.
Since taking on the leadership position, Bell said he has enjoyed covering eight out of nine Beethoven symphonies.
“You’ll meet people who will take you in directions you never imagined if you just put yourself out there,” Bell told the musicians. “We’ll all be successful on some level, but this is the time to get out of your comfort zone.”
For much of his professional career, the Bloomington native and IU graduate has been doing exactly that.
In 2016 Bell, a self-proclaimed tech and gaming fanatic, paired up with Sony PlayStation to create a virtual-reality demo performance. With an add-on headset, he said users can experience his music in 3-D surround sound as if the performance were unfolding before their eyes.
Bell said this could offer potential for classical music to reach a broader audience. In the future, he’s hopeful the virtual reality software will allow him to stream concerts from his home in Manhattan, New York City, his venue of choice, and allow thousands to get an intimate experience.
The violinist’s projects don’t end in the tech field. With close ties to Hollywood, Bell has made cameo appearances in Amazon’s “Mozart in The Jungle” series and filmed skits for Julie Andrew’s “Julie’s Greenroom,” a Netflix childrens’ series.
Beyond the film industry, Bell has taken up the role as a cultural diplomat of sorts by joining a team of artists – including the Dave Matthews Band and Smokey Robinson – on former President Barack Obama’s mission to share music in Cuban schools.
Bell, who has performed with artists such as Aerosmith and Sting, said classical music still faces stigma from other genres. He illustrated this with an unfortunate Grammy moment.
“Rosie O’Donnell was like,’ what’s your name again?’ and told the audience we were ‘four guys you’ve never heard of,’” Bell said, referring to his performance of “Death By Triple Fiddle” in 1999. “Those are things you put up with.”
The audience laughed.
As for staying grounded, Bell said immersing himself in fields aside from music is key.
“Sometimes you get so wrapped up in the sphere you inhabit and it feels like it’s the only thing that exists,” Bell said. “But hanging around actors, scientists – that gives you perspective.”
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