On the table between us, Bell politely keeps his cell phone off to the side, checking its screen only a couple of times. He does, however, take one important call. “Wow!” I hear him exclaim to someone named Tom. “That’d be amazing! You are a star. Thank you so, so much!” Tom has snagged Bell a coveted morning tee time on one of Aspen’s toniest golf courses for the coming Saturday. Bell and a friend, celebrity chef Ming Tsai, have planned three days of sports and epicurean indulgence around the annual Food & Wine magazine festival in Aspen, including a Texas Hold ’Em poker tournament for a charity. Afterward, Bell tells me, he is due at a celebrity golf event in Connecticut, another benefit, at the invitation of his friend Paul Newman.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop, who has frequently conducted Bell, can’t pin down exactly when she met him roughly ten years ago, but she remembers clearly the impression he made. “I thought he was extraordinarily talented,” she recalls by phone. “And he drove a really nice red sports car.”
Alsop’s remark calls up the image of two Joshua Bells. There’s that “farm” boy who parties with his aunts, a hardworking regular guy who talks dreamily of some day establishing a “family compound” with his sisters on his mother’s farm. Sitting across from me, Bell comes across as just plain … well, nice. Genial. Even when he’s tired, he’s friendly.
Then there’s the Euro-chic Bell who poses for magazines leaning against his cherry-red Porsche, who wears designer clothes, refers to wines as “vintages” and waxes eloquent about the 27-foot atrium and the violin-wood tones he’s employing in a major, two-year renovation of his double loft near the tearoom. This is the Bell who dated Broadway and TV actress Kristin Chenoweth for a year and also squired film star Natalie Portman.
Bell is the only major concert violinist to have been named, as he was in 1998, one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” He also stands apart from the average symphonic performer in inspiring legions of teen-aged girls (and many a middle-aged romantic) to gush about him on web sites and wait for him at stage doors. The online “Joshua Bell Forum” bubbles with postings from admirers of both sexes, many with photos attached of a perspiring, post-concert Bell smiling cheerfully as he drapes his arm around a fan.
In fact, Bell receives frequent marriage proposals from strangers, sometimes via his website. One of these days he hopes to settle down and start a family, he tells me. “In the old days, the model of most musicians and conductors was, they would have a wife who would cater to their every need, the old-fashioned model of the wife that would travel with them everywhere. That doesn’t interest me, which then makes it hard because I like someone who has a real life and is stimulating and interesting. [But] then that person can’t come with me on the road.”
Bell is in no rush to marry, though. He has grown accustomed to a routine level of motion that would quickly reduce most people to pulp. “I’m trying to train myself for a lot more downtime and meditation,” he concedes. But, right now, “I’m sort of the opposite of the Buddhist way.” He takes a sip of chai, by now cold. “I love being free and traveling to 200 different places a year and not knowing what the day is going to bring me tomorrow.”
“For me,” he adds, brushing his hair off his brow, “a good day is when I’ve packed in a million different things and just barely made it. That’s a day that leaves me feeling satisfied.”
Mandy Katz is a senior editor at Moment. Her most recent story, “Forbidden Love: Anti-Semites Who Loved Jews… And the Jews Who (Sometimes) Loved Them Back,” appeared in the June 2007 issue.