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A bow wonder

Like most 40-year-olds, Joshua Bell tries not to think about his age too much. But it is a significant milestone for most anyone, particularly an artist who has been something of a boy wonder of classical music for half of his life.

"The nice thing is I'm not a quarterback for a football team, or I'd be announcing my retirement," Bell said during a conference call in December, less than a week before his 41st birthday. "The nice thing about classical music is I have so many examples of musicians to look at who are in their 80s and 90s still performing, so it's not over yet."

Indeed, Bell is performing as much as ever. He comes to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts on Monday for a recital with pianist Jeremy Denk.e_SClB"I feel I'm still getting better playing," Bell says, "still having breakthroughs in the practice room, where things work that have never worked before, and that's a great feeling. I imagine a day will come where things start deteriorating technically, but that hasn't happened yet. I'm still getting better."

Lately, Bell has started his day playing the Preludio from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major for Solo Violin. It's a piece he hadn't performed since he was 11, but he thought it was an important challenge to revisit.

"I always had a problem with the bowing on this piece because it crosses a note on every string," Bell says. "It's sort of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. It's very hard to get this particular bowing, and I never could get it right.

"Just this past week, I figured out a way to move my arm independently in a way that it suddenly clicked, and it was such a great feeling."

The audience in Danville will hear the benefits of Bell's breakthrough after the intermission, when he plays Eugène Ysaÿe's Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, because its Prelude: Obsession is based on that Bach partita.

Musically, Bell says, he constantly has such breakthroughs, and the recital program reflects that, with pieces that Bell says echo his musical life.

"The nice thing about a recital like this is I get to choose what I want to play," Bell says.

In addition to the Ysaÿe, Bell and Denk will play Leoš Janácek's Sonata for Violin and Piano and Johannes Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor on the first half, and César Franck's Violin Sonata in A minor on the second half of the concert after the Ysaÿe.

"Putting the Franck sonata and the Ysaÿe solo sonata together was something I had never done before, but it makes a lot of sense because Ysaÿe inspired the Franck sonata," Bell said. "Franck wrote his sonata for Ysaÿe, and to have them back to back, where you hear the violinist and his imagination, and you see what inspired Franck to write one of the most famous works for violin and piano, it's nice to see them back to back.

"Also, I have a connection with Ysaÿe myself, in that he taught my teacher, (Josef) Gingold. So I grew up listening to stories about Ysaÿe."

Bell studied with Gingold at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was born and raised.

In addition to violin, Bell played tennis and enjoyed the same sorts of diversions as other children of the '80s, including video games. He still plays but says he hasn't latched onto the Guitar Hero craze, because "I don't need to pretend to be a musician."

He allows that if anyone wants to develop a Violin Hero game, he'd be happy to help.

Bell's pop-music tastes run to 1980s by Genesis and Sting, and he indulges a little story about how his own fame brought him into the orbit of one of his pop idols.

Bell and Sting worked together on a project in which Sting narrated a performance of Robert and Clara Schumann's letters.

"I was checking into my hotel in Paris, and I got a tap on the back of my shoulder from some guy with a beard, and I didn't even recognize him," Bell says. "So I said, 'Do I know you?' and he says, 'It's Sting with a beard.'"

Like Sting, Bell is now at a stage in his career when he's looking at what else he might want to do with the freedom his career has given him.

"There's certainly a lot of violin repertoire," Bell says. "Each year, I try to learn at least one new concerto. This year it's the (Max) Bruch Scottish Fantasy.

"There's a whole list, and there are other milestones for me. I'm a wannabe composer, and I've written my own cadenzas for Brahms and Beethoven and many other pieces. But I have yet to write a solo piece that's completely my own, and that's something I aspire to before I die.

"Also, conducting. I've been doing a lot of leading orchestras ... where I lead from the violin, which has been exciting and a whole new territory for me. But to make the leap where I'm only holding a baton, that will be my next milestone."

For Bell, life might not begin at 40, but he's nowhere close to slowing down.