Over the years, he has stacked the odds still higher by expanding his repertoire and taking on the roles of conductor and chamber player, as well as performing his own, original cadenzas, the virtuosic solo interludes with which performers embellish some symphonic works. Bell, Stern says, works hard to keep himself fresh and remain both interested and interesting in performance. For variety, he has shared the stage with a myriad of performers from popular crooner Josh Groban and jazz innovator Bobby McFerrin to the characters from Sesame Street.
As in his performances, Bell’s 30-plus recordings embrace both the conventional and the unexpected. Firmly in the classical tradition, he recently revisited a piece he first recorded at age 20, Tchaikovsky’s lushly romantic Violin Concerto in D major, whose 2006 CD release earned Bell plaudits for bringing a new depth and maturity to the familiar work.
In 2004, Bell garnered a major hit with a less traditional CD called Romance of the Violin—a collection of what he calls “desert island melodies” adapted from classical works. Voice of the Violin, which followed in 2006, gave similar treatment to great opera themes. Both albums topped Billboard’s classical charts, despite carping from mavens that they unforgivably stretch the genre’s definition. Bell countered with the observation that he’s delighted if the albums’ short, accessible tracks appeal to listeners who might never attend a symphony concert or buy a standard classical album.
Bell has quite purposefully drawn a new generation to classical music by—in the sometimes disdainful phrase of the purists—“crossing over” to non-classical genres, from Broadway to movie soundtracks. He’s even collaborated on a bluegrass album, Short Trip Home, with bass violinist Edgar Meyer, an old friend. And Bell performed the soundtrack for (and briefly appeared, with his bare back to the camera, in) The Red Violin—a 1999 film that follows an extraordinary but accursed instrument through three centuries of owners. In September, he will release a CD that expands and elaborates on its Oscar-winning score.
Sony, his record label, expects to make money on his recordings, Bell realizes. Some artists refuse to sell themselves out, he tells me. “I, on the other hand,” he adds with a laugh, “am happy to do the occasional silly Sesame Street.”