Joshua Bell started experimenting with music at age four, wrapping rubber bands around door handles and dressers and picking out tunes. His parents, both psychologists, thought it wise to encourage such behavior. Today, Bell is one of the most famous and well-respected violinists in the world; he is the recipient of innumerable awards and has recorded dozens of albums.
On May 25 at the Music Institute of Chicago, Bell will receive yet another accolade: the prestigious Dushkin Award, which recognizes “international luminaries of the music world” for their contributions to both the art form and education of youth. Previous recipients include Steven Sondheim, Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s very own conductor Riccardo Muti.
Bell, who is a native Midwesterner (born in Indiana), is looking forward to returning to Chicago.
“I feel like when I’m in the Midwest, in Chicago … this is my home country,” Bell says. “It’s nice to come home.”
Because Bell plays 150 concerts and travels 250 days a year, the opportunity to return to Chicago is especially comforting. Though he is not an alumnus of the Music Institute of Chicago, Bell feels strongly about their work educating young musicians and is honored to be receiving the Dushkin Award.
“It’s so nice to be recognized for what I’ve done in the music field and it’s an incredibly illustrious group of past participants so to be put on that list, certainly that’s a great honor,” Bell says. “But also the fact that they have a focus on education, which is my great passion outside of performing … making sure that arts are the important part of young people’s lives is crucial.”
The Music Institute of Chicago, which is the oldest community music school in the state, is celebrating its 86th year and has helped thousands of students refine and grow their love of music since 1931. Their work is incredibly important to Bell, who serves on the board of the charity Education Through Music, an organization that promotes the use of music in inner-city schools throughout New York.
“[Education Through Music] is one of the things I believe in most,” Bell says. “They get music programs and instruments into inner-city schools. The fact that there’s the element of the award that recognizes education, that’s particularly important to me.”
The Music Institute of Chicago established the prestigious Dushkin Award 30 years ago, named for the institute’s founders, Dorothy and David Dushkin. The Dushkins, who were both music teachers in the Chicagoland area, wanted to focus not on developing professional musicians but on instilling “musical ability and appreciation in the life-long amateur.”
Though Bell is certainly no amateur, he is deeply appreciative of the way his music education shapes his daily life and his job. Thanks to his arts education, Bell says he feels like great composers of the past are still alive.
“I get to be involved with the greatest minds that ever walked the earth,” Bell says. “It’s an incredible job I have.”
Currently, Bell is immersed in the works of Beethoven. As the music director at the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London, Bell says he is “making [his] way” through the nine symphonies of Beethoven.
In his own time, Bell prefers to focus on Bach, specifically his chaconne, a piece of music that has fascinated composers since its creation.
“It’s something to play on my own. If I were on a desert island, that’s the piece I’d play,” Bell says. “It’s perfect … almost like a prayer. It sums up everything about the universe in a 13-minute piece of music.”
This intensity of feeling translates to every arena in Bell’s life, not just music. Though his true passion outside of performing is arts education, he says there are a million charities he would support — if he only had the time.
“Being a performing artist, I’m in a unique position to help pretty much any charitable organization when it comes to fundraising,” Bell says. “I’m often asked to participate and it’s only frustrating that I can’t participate in more.”
Recently, Bell performed for Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, who is the founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, a charity dedicated to helping rebuild Haiti after the earthquake. Bell relishes the ability to help his friends and says he performs when he can for their charities.
“I just participated in a fundraiser with my friend Glenn Close,” Bell says. “She has a mental health awareness charity [called Bring Change 2 Mind] and my father was a psychologist so I grew up around people in that field. I was happy to help out.”
Bell says it’s nearly impossible to fit in as much charity work as he’d like, but he tries his best.
“I’d like to do everything that comes my way,” Bell says. “I can’t do as much as I’d like to but it’s certainly important to me.”
Bell hopes to continue to shed light on the slashing of arts funding in schools across the country as budgets tighten; he sees it as almost a personal affront.
“It should be the last thing to go, as far as I’m concerned,” Bell says. “Art is really what makes us human and it’s such a crucial part of what it means to be a human being. For most people, school is where they’re going to get that education [about life] and by cutting that off you’re really eliminating a huge part of what life is all about.”
The Music Institute of Chicago will also be honoring Lois M. and Harrison I. Steans with the seventh annual Cultural Visionary Award, which recognizes individuals who have provided “visionary philanthropic and civic leadership for the broad spectrum of arts in Chicago and Illinois.”
Thirty years ago the Steans and their three daughters founded the Steans Family Foundation, an organization committed to improving community development in Chicago. The Steans are longtime supporters of the Music Institute of Chicago as well as numerous other charitable organizations in the Chicagoland area.
The Music Institute of Chicago gala will be hosted Wednesday, May 25 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. The event will feature a number of musical performances throughout the evening, including some of the Music Institute’s Community School students and award-winning students from the Institute’s Academy, a program for talented pre-college musicians.
When: Wednesday, May 25 at 6 p.m.
Where: The Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, 120 E. Delaware Place
Dress: Cocktail attire
Tickets: From $550 per person
For more information: 847-448-8372
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