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Interview:  Joshua Bell (Played the Academy Award Winning Soundtrack

for "The Red Violin")

June, 2003

Jason Serinus


 

Violinist Joshua Bell was all of four years old when his psychologist parents bought him his first violin. 

Ten years later, having rapidly progressed from his initial musical proclivity for plucking tunes on rubber bands he had stretched around the handles of his dresser drawers, the Bloomington, Indiana native made his acclaimed orchestral debut with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. By the time he was 18, he had recorded his first disc with orchestra, a pairing of the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos (London/Decca). 

Bell has since received a huge amount of media publicity. Fueled by a ďBest Solo Recording with OrchestraĒ Grammy for the Maw Violin Concerto, star-turn participation on banjo virtuoso Bťla Fleckís Grammy-winning Perpetual Motion, and his extremely beautiful solos on John Coriglianoís Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Red Violin, popular interest in Bell is equally sparked by his tall, slim looks: People Magazine claims that Josh Bell is ďOne of the 50 Most Beautiful People In The World,Ē while Glamour Magazine has declared him ďone of six ĎItí men of the millennium.Ē

Figure in Bellís predilection for computer games and Porsches, his 2001 purchase of the long-lost Gibson Stradivarius for nearly 4 million dollars, and his participation in projects that some critics consider Ďcrossover,Ē and you have a classic case of prodigy become product. 

On April 23, 2003, the 35-year old virtuoso revisited Bruchís Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, this time in Hartfordís The Bushnell with conductor Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of St. Lukeís. (The program also included Wagner's Seigfried Idyll and Beethoven's Fourth Symphony). The same forces brought the Bruch to Carnegie Hall the following night. This phone interview took place in connection with the Hartford performance.

Jason Victor Serinus (JVS): I must tell you that when your agent Jane Covner sent me your website link (http://www.joshuabell.com) and asked me to review your autobiography so I wouldnít ask questions that had already been answered thereon, I felt as I did when I first entered the Amherst College Office of Admissions over 40 years ago. They handed me a list of questions entitled ďQuestions Most Usually Asked by Applicants for Admission,Ē as if to say, if you ask any of these routine questions, we will not be impressed.

Joshua Bell (JB): Donít worry about it; Jane just wanted to make sure you can get as much information as possible during our limited time speaking. Weíll pack in as much as we can. Unfortunately, my life has been ďto the minuteĒ lately; ten minutes really makes a difference.

JVS: Youíve become a media celebrity. Everyone wants you, youíre on movie soundtracks, etc. What is it like trying to balance all this so you can breathe and be able to put your heart and soul into music?

JB: Balance is the thing Iím struggling with most, all the time. I havenít yet found the right balance. Youíre asking me this right after I returned last night from a tour in which I had 17 concerts in different cities in 20 days. Iím exhausted. Itís really my fault; I tend to want to do everything, and Iím not very good at saying no. If I have a day off between concerts and someone invites me to play somewhere, my reaction is always to say, ďSure, Iíll do it.Ē I thrive on having a lot to do, and I like to do everything. But Iím starting to discover that itís not always the healthiest thing for me. I need more time to do nothing, and to learn how to do nothing. I just actually started taking private yoga and meditation lessons. (Laughing). Itís so not me, because itís not my style. But Iím trying to slow myself down. So balance is the No. 1 thing: Finding the right balance between playing, taking time for myself, and doing other things.

JVS: I can relate. Iím going to enter a whistling competition in seven weeks, and I havenít had time to practice. The dilemma youíre going through seems very American, wanting to do everything and be everywhere at the same time.

JB: Maybe you can say that. Itís also a personality trait of mine. I like the adrenalin. My lifestyle has trained me to get an adrenalin rush before I perform; you become almost addicted to a faster pace. And, of course, living in New York City is a perfect place for someone like me. Itís also a whole existential thing: I have only one life to live, and I want to do everything, do as much music and play with as many people as I can.

I like to take risks musically, and try different projects. Some people might say Iím trying to branch out and do too many things at once. They could be right, but I like to try everything.

JVS: How did some of your ďcrossoverĒ projects and movie scores originate? Did you or your agent or label come up with the ideas, or did people come directly to you?

JB:  The cynics usually look at this aspect of my discography and say, ďOh, he just did a bluegrass project with Edgar Meyer whoís also on Sony; this is obviously a case of a record company throwing two people together.Ē Thatís often the case, but this was a totally different story.

Double bass player Edgar Meyer is one of the most amazing musicians. He attended Indiana University when I was there 20 years ago. We developed a friendship, and Iíve followed his music and career ever since. Many years later, when we discovered the happy coincidence that we were both at Sony, the partnership evolved naturally. Our disc may have been ďcrossover,Ē but itís one of the most inspiring musical collaborations Iíve ever done. It wasnít a light diversion or a ďfun crossoverĒ thing; the bluegrass musicians I worked with, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, and Edgar, are some of the most serious and perfectionist musicians Iíve ever worked with. I learned so much from them. I think of it as chamber music.

The same holds true for the score to The Red Violin. The project began when the Director came to me and asked me to be the voice of his red violin. It turned out to be a really neat experience. On the surface, it looks like a light, Hollywood thing. But I think of it as New Music. I worked with one of our great composers, John Corigliano, who composed repertoire I still perform on the concert stage.

JVS: And then, when you bought your new Stradivarius, which Iíve read has a unique finish to it, you ended up owning a red violin.

JB: Sort of.

JVS: Are there any recordings on which you play your recently acquired Strad? We with high-end sound systems would love to hear the difference between it and your former Stradivarius.

JB: You can hear it on the soundtrack to the movie Iris. It may not be the best way to compare the sound, however, because itís a movie soundtrack that is prepared electronically. Actually, Iíve never listened to it since I saw the movie. But my upcoming recordings will also feature the new violin.

JVS: Youíre playing the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 in Hartford, and doing it the next day in Carnegie Hall. Please talk about piece and what it means to you.

JB: The Bruch is certainly one of the most popular violin pieces, and for very good reason. Itís a little gem by a great composer who was never considered among the ranks of Beethoven, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. Regardless, this piece is certainly on the same level as the Mendelssohn.

During Brahmsí time in the late 19th century, the Bruch, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn were the three big violin concertos of the time. Today, the work has endured; you probably hear it almost every season of every major orchestra. Itís not huge, like the Beethoven. Itís compact. But its middle movement is one of the most beautiful slow movements of any concerto. And the last movement is heroic and uplifting, with an exciting, gypsy-like finale.

The Bruch, like the Mendelssohn, is one of the first big pieces that violinists play. Itís a bit like the Grieg Piano Concerto in that regard. A talented young violinist can tackle it, and itís so well written that it continues to be musically interesting for adult players. Iíve listened to it since I was about 12.

JVS: Have you recorded it?

JB: It was one of the first recordings I made when I signed with London/Decca when I was 18 (London/Decca 2LH 421145). I recorded it with the Mendelssohn, and it was my first recording with an orchestra. It was one of those studio slam-bam jobs, done in a single afternoon. I was thrown into the studio with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which is a great orchestra, but without any rehearsal or concert prior. Iíve learned not to do that anymore.

So many years have passed that Iím ready to record it again, which is what I did with the Mendelssohn last year (Sony).

JVS: I was recently reviewing Anne Sophie Mutterís recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and spent awhile comparing it with other versions. I really warmed to the beauty and charm of your interpretation, finding it the modern recording I enjoyed the most. Itís smaller scaled than many others.

JB: Norrington used a smaller orchestra, and his players used almost no vibrato. Smaller orchestra doesnít always mean less powerful. Power can be felt in different ways; to me, louder, bigger, and more vibrato doesnít make something more powerful.

With this piece, you have to let the inner beauty come out. Thereís a tendency, because the Beethoven is played so often, to try to milk every moment and enforce music onto it. It becomes like an actor overacting a part. There are different styles of acting; it becomes a personal choice of what you like. For me, sometimes when I see an actor chewing up their part onscreen, I prefer a more subtle approach that ends up being believable.

I tend to like to err on the side of letting the beauty come out, rather than inflicting an interpretation upon it. Particularly with the Beethoven, which is a huge piece, if you indulge in every moment, you can lose the overall arc of the piece and it can seem endless. It can be one of the most boring pieces in the world if one doesnít have a sense from the beginning to end of having an overall arch.

Iím not sure I was successful with the recording. Beethoven is the kind of piece where youíre always trying to find the right pacing, because itís a piece that can make a good violinist sound very bad.

JVS: Where does the Bruch take you when you play it? Can you contrast it with the Beethoven, which readers are likely to know?

JB: Oh boy, itís very hard to say because music is abstract and can take you so many different places. No piece of music takes you just one place. You can look at it one day and certain things will stand out, and youíll identify with certain parts.

In the Bruch, for example, you can look at the slow movement, be very touched, and find yourself gazing inside at so many different things in your life; it can be either uplifting or depressing, depending upon how you look at it. Itís very hard to say in words what a piece like that does.

The Beethoven is on such a grand scale that by the time you reach the end, you feel like youíve been on a big journey and arrive triumphant. The Bruch, on the other hand, has a different impact, possibly because itís not on such a grand scale. Basically itís a feel-good piece that ends excitingly.

JVS: Have you performed in Hartford before?

JB: Yes, I had some nice experiences there playing with the orchestra.

JVS; Do conductors usually let you go where you want to go, or do they sometimes lock horns with you in a struggle that needs to be resolved very fast?

JB: Generally I havenít had many horrible experiences. Since a violin concerto is a piece a soloist has been working on their whole life, and represents their one little moment in the concert, most conductors will defer and try to do their best to support the violinist, who has the lead role. Playing with a really good conductor is inspiring and makes me play better.

Sometimes, when it feels like weíre fighting, it feels as though weíd be better off without the conductor there at all. This is why lately Iíve been playing without a conductor. I just did a big tour leading and playing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. I had a great experience.

JVS: I watched Murray Perahia do that in San Francisco. Was it exhausting for you?

JB: Yes, it is exhausting, but thatís all right. Itís very musically rewarding. It feels like chamber music. The orchestra listens like theyíre playing in a string quartet, which is the way it should be. Sometimes when you have a conductor waving a baton, the players feel less of a responsibility and it shows.

Donald Runnicles is my conductor in Hartford and Carnegie Hall. Iíve not played with him before, but Iíve heard consistently wonderful things about him. Musicians tell me heís a wonderful musician. Iím really excited about working with him.

JVS: Are you coming to the Bay Area next year?

JB: Iím coming to Stanford next season, but not to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Usually if an orchestra likes me and invites me back, itís every other year. Since I opened the SFS season last year playing Bernstein, and returned in November with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields to perform Bach, Haydn, and Schubertís Death and the Maiden, I wonít be back for 2003-2004. Maybe Iíll never be invited back -- I donít know -- but I like playing in San Francisco, and Michael and I have a good rapport.

JVS: Youíve done a project to help bring the violin and classical music to children.

JB: I donít want to over exaggerate my involvement in that project, but I do like to involve myself in projects that bring music to children. The people at MIT were creating new musical toys for kids, and I was working with them on a project called Toy Symphony. The project included an orchestra and kids onstage, plus me playing a new electronic violin called the hyperviolin.

JVS: I recently spoke with Ned Rorem and Jake Heggie, and both were lamenting the lack of classical music education in the schools. Ned was saying that music education should be compulsory at the grade school level. What do you feel whatís happening with music education?

JB: Music should be part of a normal diet for a kid, just like mathematics and literature. Itís just as important. I think itís wrong that itís perceived as more dispensable than math. Music is good for kids in so many ways. On a mathematical level, it makes them use their brains. Itís important for logic, for expression, for working together socially. Iím slightly biased, but I think itís got more benefits than any other subject.

JVS: Thereís new research that shows that people who listen to or play classical music have parts of their brain more developed.

JB: Every single culture has its music and art, even in the remotest jungles. Why is that? Itís not just some sort of whim; itís a very strong human need. It needs to be fostered like language.

Iím always looking for ways to promote music. This year Iíve already been on Sesame Street. Just from doing that, Iíve already had parents bring their kids backstage and say, ďMy little kid saw you on Sesame Street and wanted to try the violin, and now heís taking lessons.Ē Itís very rewarding when things like that pan out.

I often go into schools, or meet with young kids when Iím in a town and casually gab with them about music. I play a little and talk about it. Hopefully my enthusiasm for music rubs off.

JVS: Are there composers who are writing for you?

JB: John Corigliano is writing a concerto for me, The Red Violin, which Iím premiering in the fall in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Los Angeles. It uses the Chaconne that he wrote for the score of The Red Violin, and adds two or three other shorter movements.

JVS: What about future recording projects?

JB: Although it doesnít yet have a title, Iíve gathered 14 or 15 of my favorite musical melodies. Some are violin pieces, others operatic, going all the way from Monteverdi to modern. Basically itís a desert island beautiful melody compilation that Iím playing with orchestra. Iím adapting a 19th century idea, making new arrangements like Fritz Kreisler did. I guess the record company sees it as slightly crossover, because they can market it in so many ways. Next year Iím planning to record the Tchaikovsky Concerto again; I recorded it a long time ago.

The opera arias may include ďCasta DivaĒ and the duet from Pearl Fishers. Weíre still deciding among 20 possible pieces.

JVS: Everyone knows Callasí recording of ďCasta Diva,Ē but you might want to check out the version by Claudia Muzio, recorded at the end of her life. Itís a little fast, given that itís on a í78. She really ďgets itĒ in the second verse; at the end she sings as if the aria is contained in a frame, and her voice and spirit move outside the frame. Her voice will tear your heart apart.

Lots of your PR focuses on non-musical elements: your physical appearances, the $4 million dollar Stradivarius violin, the Porche, etc. Does this work for you, or at some point would you prefer that people instead talk about the music? Can you relate to all these stories about you?

JB: To put it in perspective, compared to people in other fields such as movies and pop music, itís really very minimal. I donít get recognized on the street every other minute. Yet, maybe for conventional classical music, Iíve done some things that are out of the normal bounds.

I do have a problem when I feel the marketing doesnít reflect who I am, and I try to control that. There are times when the hype bothers me, such as when a presenter entices people to attend a concert of mine by printing a poster that says something like ďPeople Magazine says such and such.Ē But it also bothers me when I play for a 3/4 empty hall. Itís really a trade-off.

Classical music needs to use modern marketing methods to stay current with the times. Otherwise, you especially alienate young people, who think classical music is some kind of museum piece, rather than something real and current. Youíre always walking that line. Iím trying to do it, but itís not always easy. And I donít always have a good perspective on how people view it.

JVS: So weíre back to the question of balance. The yoga and meditation will help a lot with that.

JB: Okay [laughing]!

 

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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