On stage, Bell is a moving target—“moving” in the literal, physical sense as well as the emotional one. His supple gyrations bring to mind the arched spine of a tennis player reaching back for a serve. His body follows, shoulders stretching away from his balance point as the music climbs, then swooping in toward the orchestra when it dips.
It’s not his physical performance but his emotional engagement with a piece that draws in Bell’s listeners, says longtime friend Michael Stern, 47, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and son of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. “Some people,” Stern says of soloists, “are trying first and foremost to give ‘the extroverted performance.’ In Bell’s case, the fact that he connects with the audience begins with his connection with the music. He’s not using the music as a springboard simply to perform on stage; he’s sharing what he’s discovered about the piece.”
Once again, I try to square these performance kinetic with the still, understated mien that Bell presents in our tearoom tête-à-tête. There is a connection, I realize: What Bell carries with him from the spotlight into the wings is his intense concentration. “At the moment of commission in his music-making,” Stern remarks, “he’s incredibly centered.” The same holds true in conversation. Bell’s eyes rarely wander and he’s always ready for the next question; he never even seems to rearrange his long legs, crossed at the ankles and stretched to one side below our little table.
Bell himself attributes his on-stage excitement to his relationship with the audience and the uncertainty of a live show—a thrill akin, he suggests, to the kick of casino wagering. “You never know how it’s going to go, where it’s going to go, so there is a gambling element every time you walk out” to play, he explains. “I like, in performance, feeling like I’m taking risks.”