In January 2007, Joshua Bell went undercover. Donning jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap, the Grammy Award-winning violinist walked into a Washington, D.C., metro station, pulled out his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin and started to play.
Only a handful of people paused to listen as Bell performed soul-stirring classical pieces by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert. Over 43 minutes, he collected about $32.
The stunt, which was orchestrated by The Washington Post and won writer Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize, sparked a fierce debate about attention spans, musical tastes and public performance (it even inspired a 2013 children’s book, “The Man with the Violin”). But Bell isn’t eager to draw any conclusions, other than the importance of having one’s ears open.
“For classical music, you need to be prepared. You need to have 100 percent attention,” said Bell, who performs Sunday in San Luis Obispo with English pianist Sam Haywood. “That’s what’s so great about classical music. It engages the brain entirely. It’s not passive. It’s active.”
Bell, 46, grew up in Bloomington, Ind., just “around the corner” from Indiana University and its acclaimed Jacobs School of Music. (Bell, who received an artist diploma in violin performance from Indiana University in 1989, currently serves as a senior lecturer at the school.)
Bell’s parents gave him his first violin at age 4. By 12, he had dedicated himself to mastering the instrument.
“I was just very lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” recalled Bell, who studied under Belarusian-born classical violinist Josef Gingold. Bell appeared as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14, making his debut at New York City’s Carnegie Hall at 17 and recording his first album at 18.
Over the years, he has recorded more than 40 albums, including the film soundtracks for “Angels and Demons,” “Chasing Ice,” “Defiance” and “The Red Violin.” (The latter won an Oscar for best score.)
“Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends,” released last October, finds the violinist collaborating with artists including Latin pop icon Gloria Estefan, jazz greats Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis, and opera stars Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming.
Recipient of the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, Bell balances his solo career with his duties as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London. He took over the post in 2011, becoming the first person to hold that title since Sir Neville Marriner formed the esteemed orchestra in 1958.
“It certainly is incredibly exhausting playing and directing a symphony … because you really have to have every brain cell working,” explained Bell, who must worry about the other players’ performances as well as his own.
Asked how conducting an orchestra compares to performing alone, he said both have their rewards.
“For me, the most satisfying things musically are those two things — directing, where I can have a lot of time to rehearse … and expand my repertoire — and playing a solo recital,” he said. “I love intimate. The more intimate the better when making music.”
Bell takes the stage Sunday with Haywood — a pianist he described as no mere accompanist, but a “true artist.”
“As much as I loved him in the beginning, I feel he’s opened up into an even greater pianist,” Bell said, adding that their partnership has grown over the three or four years they’ve been playing together. “We’re feeling more confident playing with each other and bouncing (ideas) off of each other. It’s really blossoming into a profound collaboration.”
Sunday’s concert offers audiences “a little bit of everything,” said Bell, comparing it to “a tasting menu at a restaurant.”
The program begins with Giuseppe Tartini’s “Violin Sonata in G. minor,” a demanding, emotionally wrought piece better known as the “Devil’s Trill Sonata,” followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Violin Sonata No. 10.”
The concert continues with “Divertimento, for Violin and Piano” by Igor Stravinsky. A selection from Stravinsky’s 1928 ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss,” that “bombastic romp” is “much more lightweight and accessible” than the composer’s better-known work, “The Rite of Spring,” Bell said.
The repertoire reflects Bell’s belief that music requires equal parts romance, emotion, logic and structure.
“Both sides of the brain … come together perfectly,” he said. “That’s why music is so appealing. I’m biased, but (I believe) it’s the most perfect of the arts. It cuts to the soul and who we are in a most perfect way.”
IF YOU GO
Joshua Bell: Recital with Sam Haywood
7 p.m. Sunday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$35 to $90
756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.