The soloist Joshua Bell, who plays at the Emirates Palace on Friday, tells Feargus O'Sullivan about the value of an audience and of musical collaborations
He's been one of the world's most feted violinists since his teenage years, stood at the heart of one of this century's biggest musical discussions and still looks like a Hollywood heart-throb. It's easy to see why Joshua Bell is one of the classical world's best known soloists.
On Friday, the 45-year-old musician plays Abu Dhabi for the first time, performing with the Czech Philharmonic at the Abu Dhabi Festival. But why has it taken him so long to get here?
"I don't know," he laughs over the phone. "I guess I've been waiting to be invited. I've been meaning to come over for decades but as I never take holidays, the opportunity never arose. I know how many really great musicians you've had over in recent years and I'm really interested to see what it'll be like. Every city, every culture has a different way of reacting to music."
For a non-musician, the idea of a silent, seated audience having an effect on a performer can be a little hard to grasp, so I wonder how Bell feels the differences between places so strongly.
"It's certainly mysterious," he says. "I don't believe in ESP but classical music is all about audience participation. I would compare it to a play. Like actors on stage, you don't necessarily want them to acknowledge the audience - I mean it would be awkward if Hamlet suddenly turned around and waved at everybody in the stalls. But it's still a two-way street and if you have an audience's rapt attention, you can definitely feel it. That doesn't mean that total silence is always best. In places like Japan where audiences are totally silent, it can almost be disconcerting."
If anyone should understand the value of a good audience, it's Bell. In 2007, he sought one out undercover, busking in a Washington subway station as part of an experiment for The Washington Post. Despite being one of the world's greatest musicians - and looking curiously like a cross between Matthew Broderick and Michael J Fox - he got little attention and barely US$30 (Dh110) in tips. The experiment became one of 21st century music's most discussed episodes, opening many press debates about the proper contexts for good art.
Perhaps inevitably, Bell groans when he's asked about it: "I suppose it's better than being known for a sex video or a scandal," he says, "but I had no idea the whole thing would get so big. What it did confirm for me, however, was that music needs a captive, dedicated audience or it's meaningless."
This isn't to say that Bell always prefers the confines of the concert hall. He's also known for his eclectic collaborations with musicians as diverse as Sting and Regina Spektor. In fact, he comes to our interview fresh from collaborating with a certain Latin music star.
"I was just playing a Beethoven concerto with the Cleveland Philharmonic in Miami and I spent an afternoon recording a beautiful Cuban ballad with Gloria Estefan. I had such a great time.
"Of course, some people in the classical music world see collaborations like that as a cash-in but that isn't a motivation for me at all. I just love music and experimenting helps me develop. I've played with bluegrass musicians, for example, who have this incredible sense of rhythm - certainly greater than is normally found in the classical world - and learning from them has helped my playing across the board."
Bell's choice for his Abu Dhabi debut is rather more orthodox: he'll be playing Max Bruch's stunning Violin Concerto No 1, a lyrical, dramatic piece perfectly designed to reveal a soloist's mettle. It's a piece Bell admits to having played "maybe 1,000 times", so how does he manage to keep it fresh and develop?
"Over the years, I've become much clearer about the characters of the music's phrasing. My playing is more flowing, more organic now. It's like telling a joke - it only works if you get the tone and timing just right. I can work for hours in rehearsal to get a particular phrase right but at the concert itself, I like to let go. I think if you're too meticulous then things can get stale, so I like to abandon myself a bit, to improvise."
Joshua Bell performs with the Czech Philharmonic on Friday at 8pm, in the Emirates Palace Auditorium