Only The Best Will Do

November 21, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Joshua Bell is looking for a soul mate.

You wouldn't think he'd have problems -- he's young, he's famous, he's good-looking, he's got a great personality and he's perhaps the most talented American violinist of his generation.

But the companion that Bell's looking for isn't a human being -- it's a violin.

"You're always looking for the right match for your personality -- it's like getting married," says Bell, who will play Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman tonight and tomorrow. And though Bell says he's found the violin of his dreams, he's not sure he can afford it.

"I think I was born two decades too late," the 23-year-old violinist says ruefully.

The instrument Bell's in love with is a Stradivarius known as the General Kyd. It sold for $850,000 four years ago when Itzhak Perlman decided to part with it after acquiring Yehudi Menuhin's violin. Now, General Kyd's cost is $2 million.

"They were always expensive, but now there are only a few people who can afford them," Bell says of such near-priceless 18th century violins as Stradivaris and Guarneris. Less than 2,000 of these great instruments are in existence -- not all of them in playing condition -- and even players as successful as Bell have trouble affording them.

Bell does own a fine Stradivarius -- an unusual guitar-shaped instrument made in 1724 that is the only one of its kind. But its large size -- it was probably originally intended to be a viola de gamba -- makes it rather difficult to play and Bell currently uses a 1732 instrument lent to him by the Stradivarius Society, a foundation that exists to put such instruments in the hands of the people they were intended for.

"Still, it's not the same as having your own instrument -- it can be taken away at any time," Bell says. As he speaks, a violin is mysteriously brought by courier into his dressing room.

"It's another Strad -- I may try it out at the rehearsal, even play on it tomorrow night," Bell says as he takes the violin out of its case and begins to play scales on it.

"While it's always exciting to try out new violins, it's frustrating not to be able to have the violin you really love," he says with a smile. "It's not enough to make you wish you were a pianist -- but at least they don't have to mortgage their lives away."

Joshua Bell

What: Plays Mozart with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

When: 8:15 tonight and tomorrow night

Tickets: $12-$40

Call: (410) 783-8000

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