Forty albums. Multiple awards, including an Oscar, Emmy and Pulitzer. The respect and adoration of his classical music peers. A slot on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list. With all that, it would seem that virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell is out of summits to reach. But the 45-year-old Bloomington, Ind., native embarked on a new adventure in 2011, when he was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the venerable British orchestra with which he first played at age 18. Now, his first recording as head of the ensemble, “Beethoven: Symphonies 4 & 7,” is due Feb. 12 on Sony Masterworks.
“If you’ve never heard ‘Beethoven 7,’ it’s probably one of the most exciting pieces of music ever written. When you reach the end you feel like you’ve just conquered the world,” Bell says. “People who don’t know or haven’t heard it, they have this idea that classical music is soothing. [But] this is music you should be cranking up.”
The Academy is best-known for its very crank-able soundtrack to the 1984 Academy Award-winning film “Amadeus,” which has been certified platinum by the RIAA and reached No. 56 on the Billboard 200, making it one of the most popular classical releases of all time. The ensemble was formed in 1958 by Grammy lifetime achievement award winner Neville Mariner, its first and only musical director–until now.
The appointment is prestigious and symbolic: Bell, an American, hand-selected by Mariner to carry on the ensemble’s legacy of bringing the music to the masses. But it’s also created a rare, must-see event in the classical world. On tour with the orchestra since last year, Bell doesn’t merely conduct; he also plays violin at the same time, a rare show of musical prowess that had audiences leaping from their seats, and even applauding between movements–perish the thought.
“It’s physically challenging,” Bell says. “I lose about three pounds in perspiration after every concert. I usually play a solo concerto and the orchestra plays the second half of the symphony without me.”
Recorded in London, “Symphonies 4 & 7” features him conducting the iconic pieces “from the chair” (as in the first-chair violinist’s seat). “For me to finally be able to tackle this repertoire I’ve known my whole life, it’s an incredible experience,” he says.
“This is a very special release for Josh and everybody at Masterworks,” Sony Classical president Bogdan Roscic says. “I was blown away by the sound they made together-a level of articulation often found only in chamber music, and the sheer power which is the privilege of a big orchestra.”
Bell is one of few classical artists who have achieved mainstream recognition without a concentrated attempt at crossover. He’s played on the soundtrack to Beethoven biopic “The Red Violin,” participated in a social experiment in the Washington, D.C., metro that won the Washington Post a Pulitzer (playing incognito to see how passers-by would react) and appeared everywhere from “Today” to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” This year, he even played on Oscar-nominated song “Before My Time” from the film “Chasing Ice,” accompanying the vocals of Scarlett Johansson.
All of that makes the marketing of his music a bit higher-profile. The Beethoven release will benefit from a close partnership with Barnes & Noble, which “is the fulcrum of a big physical marketing campaign,” Sony Masterworks senior VP Chuck Mitchell says. In addition to things like in-store signage and targeted email blasts, Bell will be B&N’s artist of the month, which activates discounts on his catalog recordings. Plus, the new Beethoven collection will be played in-store at all 570 B&N locations, a placement usually reserved for more mainstream music.
“They generally focus on vocal and pop records,” Mitchell says. “So that’s a big thing for orchestral music.”