Sex and the symphony

It used to be that “classical” automatically equaled frumpy.

Classical music was performed in stuffy, ornate halls complete with gaudy chandeliers. “The classics” referred to dusty, boring tomes of yore, unless they were musical hits from your grandparents’ generation, in which case they were just embarrassing. Classical art, classic cars: all stuff to be filed under “antique.”

Not so much, these days. Proving that fashion is fickle, hip young things are cropping up around every classical corner, reinventing the genre in their own image. There’s 22-year-old pinup boy Peter Cincotti reworking the Cole Porter chestnut “I Love Paris.” Twenty-four-year-old Josh Groban has turned opera into crossover pop hits, sharing stages with the likes of Beyonce.

And then there’s violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who, at a comparatively elderly 37, is more likely to appear in Marie Claire or People than in classical-music rag Gramophone (though he’s graced that cover, too).

Bell, who will make his local debut at the Brevard Music Festival on July 3, even has groupies. This spring, Men’s Health noted that ” … Sometimes he ditches formalwear [on stage] for black leather and open collars — [it] certainly adds a little bad-ass rep to his repertoire.” And then there’s his oft-referenced inclusion in People magazine’s annual “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” issue.

“I always make sure my fly is zipped,” Bell revealed in that 2000 interview. “I’m neurotic about that.”

Like any rock star worth his strings, Bell has no time for the banalities of domestic life. TimeOut New York took jabs at his lack of cooking skills (the violinist admits he dines out every meal, unless he hires a personal chef). And speculations on his love life abound: “It takes a special kind of person to be an artist, period … so yeah, it’s good to be single,” Bell mused to American Way last year. Add to that his penthouse and Porsche, and one almost suspects that the boyish fashionista is all talk and no (musical) action.

He’s not. Brandishing a 1713 Stradivarius, Bell has recorded everything from Romance of the Violin (Sony, 2003) — a classical collection including works by Puccini — to Perpetual Motion (Sony, 2001), on which he performs works by Debussy and Chopin with banjo snob Bela Fleck.

Back in high school, though, Bell had to appeal to wealthy arts patroness Alice Tully to get his hands on a good instrument. “Tully’s apartment provided an extravagant backdrop for Josh, who looked more like an ordinary teenager than a violin virtuoso,” writes Blair Tindall in her memoir Mozart in the Jungle (see accompanying review). (Proving it’s a small symphonic world, Tindall was roommates with Bell’s half sister in school.)

And, though he got his start by winning the 1981 music contest put on by Seventeen magazine, Bell grew up to perform the solo on the A-list Red Violin soundtrack. The 1999 film traces the migration of a seemingly enchanted 17th-century violin (finished with a red stain) as it makes its way from owner to owner over the course of centuries. Bell’s own current instrument — which he paid close to $4 million for in 2001 — has a similar history.

But, serious musicianship aside, Bell is hardly a nerd about it. He’s got a reputation to uphold, after all.

“Of course, I don’t practice a lot,” he announced breezily to American Way. Because apparently all play and no glow makes Josh a dull boy. Like any celebrity, he needs to keep his aura as fine-tuned as his instrument.

“I’ve just started doing yoga with a personal trainer,” he added during the interview. “Yoga may be my key for the next 30 years.”


Joshua Bell makes his local debut at 3 p.m. at Brevard College’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on Sunday, July 3, as part of the Brevard Music Festival. Selections will include Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” and “Symphony No. 12″ by Shostakovich. Tickets run $23-$40, including a lecture (2 p.m. in Thomas Hall) by author Blair Tindall. For more information, call 862-2100.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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