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This Music Kept the Young Joshua Bell Up Late at Summer Camp

Shervin Lainez
A recording by violinist Jascha Heifetz was a favorite of Joshua Bell's when he was a kid at summer camp.

One of classical music’s biggest stars—violinist Joshua Bell—returns to music that touched his soul when he was very young. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, it was music worth violating curfew for at summer camp.

Listen on Sunday, July 14 at 1 pm on WRTI 90.1 when Joshua Bell performs Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra.

When he was just 10 or 11 years old, Joshua Bell came upon the Jascha Heifetz recording of Henryk Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto.

"I used to sit underneath the covers at summer camp where lights are supposed to be out, and I would listen with headphones and my tape player," he says, smiling. "I remember around this time getting goosebumps for the first time. I think it was from the Wieniawski!"

Although maybe not a household name today, Wieniawski was one of the most famous violinists of the 19th century. Born in 1835, he graduated from the Paris Conservatory when he was 11; at 13, he began a concert career that took him all over Europe and the U.S.  

Called  "the greatest violinist of his time" by Anton Rubenstein, Wieniawski was being compared to Paganini by the time he was 19. And like Paganini, he wrote works for himself to play.

His mastery on the instrument was evident by his writing.  “He writes for the instrument in way that Beethoven or Brahms could not,” says Bell. 

“Joachim helped Brahms a lot with his concerto to make it more violinistic. But with this piece somehow,  [Wieniawski’s] able to exploit the instrument; he knows what the violin can do.”

Both in terms of virtuosity and lush romantic sound.

“He also has some incredibly beautiful parts: the slow movement, the romance, is not a long piece;  just a perfect little gem in the middle.  It's as good as anything written for violin as far as melody is concerned.”

Wieniawski played the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto on November 27, 1862, in St. Petersburg with Anton Rubenstein conducting. Heifetz championed the work in the 20th century, inspiring a new generation.

Listen to Joshua Bell talk with Susan Lewis about Wieniawski, and how conducting and improvising have informed his approach to playing.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.