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
Bell has since received a huge amount of media
publicity. Fueled by a “Best Solo Recording with Orchestra” Grammy for
the Maw Violin Concerto, star-turn participation on banjo virtuoso
Béla Fleck's Grammy-winning Perpetual Motion,
and his extremely beautiful solos on John Corigliano's 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 “One of the 50 Most Beautiful People In The World,”
while Glamour Magazine
has declared him “one of six ‘It' men of the millennium.”
Figure in Bell's
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 ‘crossover,” and
you have a classic case of prodigy become product.
On April 23,
2003, the 35-year old virtuoso revisited Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1
in G minor, this time in Hartford's The Bushnell with conductor Donald
Runnicles and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. (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
and asked me to review your autobiography so I wouldn't 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 “Questions Most Usually
Asked by Applicants for Admission,” as if to say, if you ask any of
these routine questions, we will not be impressed.
Joshua Bell (JB):
Don't worry about it; Jane just
wanted to make sure you can get as much information as possible during
our limited time speaking. We'll pack in as much as we can.
Unfortunately, my life has been “to the minute” lately; ten minutes
really makes a difference.
You've become a media celebrity. Everyone wants you, you're 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?
Balance is the thing I'm struggling with most, all the time. I haven't
yet found the right balance. You're asking me this right after I
returned last night from a tour in which I had 17 concerts in
different cities in 20 days. I'm exhausted. It's really my fault; I
tend to want to do everything, and I'm 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, “Sure, I'll do it.” I thrive
on having a lot to do, and I like to do everything. But I'm starting
to discover that it's 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). It's so not me, because it's not my style. But I'm 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
can relate. I'm going to enter a whistling competition in seven weeks,
and I haven't had time to practice. The dilemma you're going through
seems very American, wanting to do everything and be everywhere at the
Maybe you can say that. It's 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. It's 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 I'm trying to branch out and do too
many things at once. They could be right, but I like to try
did some of your “crossover” projects and movie scores originate? Did
you or your agent or label come up with the ideas, or did people come
directly to you?
cynics usually look at this aspect of my discography and say, “Oh, he
just did a bluegrass project with Edgar Meyer who's also on Sony; this
is obviously a case of a record company throwing two people together.”
That's 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 I've 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 “crossover,” but it's one of the
most inspiring musical collaborations I've ever done. It wasn't a
light diversion or a “fun crossover” thing; the bluegrass musicians I
worked with, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, and Edgar, are some of the most
serious and perfectionist musicians I've 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.
then, when you bought your new Stradivarius, which I've read has a
unique finish to it, you ended up owning a red violin.
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.
can hear it on the soundtrack to the movie Iris. It may
not be the best way to compare the sound, however, because it's a
movie soundtrack that is prepared electronically. Actually, I've never
listened to it since I saw the movie. But my upcoming recordings will
also feature the new violin.
You're 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.
Bruch is certainly one of the most popular violin pieces, and for very
good reason. It's 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
During Brahms' 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. It's
not huge, like the Beethoven. It's 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. It's a bit like the Grieg Piano
Concerto in that regard. A talented young violinist can tackle it, and
it's so well written that it continues to be musically interesting for
adult players. I've listened to it since I was about 12.
Have you recorded it?
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. I've learned not to do that anymore.
So many years have passed that I'm ready to
record it again, which is what I did with the Mendelssohn last year
was recently reviewing Anne Sophie Mutter's 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. It's smaller scaled than
Norrington used a smaller orchestra, and his players used almost no
vibrato. Smaller orchestra doesn't always mean less powerful. Power
can be felt in different ways; to me, louder, bigger, and more vibrato
doesn't make something more powerful.
With this piece, you have to let the inner beauty
come out. There's 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 doesn't have a sense from the beginning to end of having an
I'm not sure I was successful with the recording.
Beethoven is the kind of piece where you're always trying to find the
right pacing, because it's a piece that can make a good violinist
sound very bad.
Where does the Bruch take you when you play it? Can you contrast it
with the Beethoven, which readers are likely to know?
boy, it's 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
you'll 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. It's 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 you've been on a big journey
and arrive triumphant. The Bruch, on the other hand, has a different
impact, possibly because it's not on such a grand scale. Basically
it's a feel-good piece that ends excitingly.
Have you performed in Hartford before?
I had some nice experiences there playing with the orchestra.
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
Generally I haven't 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 we're fighting, it
feels as though we'd be better off without the conductor there at all.
This is why lately I've 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.
watched Murray Perahia do that in San Francisco. Was it exhausting for
it is exhausting, but that's all right. It's very musically rewarding.
It feels like chamber music. The orchestra listens like they're
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. I've not played with him before, but I've heard
consistently wonderful things about him. Musicians tell me he's a
wonderful musician. I'm really excited about working with him.
you coming to the Bay Area next year?
coming to Stanford next season, but not to the San Francisco Symphony
Usually if an orchestra likes me and invites me back, it's 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 Schubert's Death and the Maiden, I won't be
back for 2003-2004. Maybe I'll never be invited back -- I don't know
-- but I like playing in San Francisco, and Michael and I have a good
You've done a project to help bring the violin and classical music to
don't 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.
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 what's happening with music education?
Music should be part of a normal diet for a kid, just like mathematics
and literature. It's just as important. I think it's wrong that it's
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.
It's important for logic, for expression, for working together
socially. I'm slightly biased, but I think it's got more benefits than
any other subject.
There's new research that shows that people who listen to or play
classical music have parts of their brain more developed.
Every single culture has its music and art, even in the remotest
jungles. Why is that? It's not just some sort of whim; it's a very
strong human need. It needs to be fostered like language.
I'm always looking for ways to promote music.
This year I've already been on Sesame Street. Just from doing that,
I've already had parents bring their kids backstage and say, “My
little kid saw you on Sesame Street and wanted to try the violin, and
now he's taking lessons.” It's very rewarding when things like that
I often go into schools, or meet with young kids
when I'm 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.
there composers who are writing for you?
Corigliano is writing a concerto for me, The Red Violin,
which I'm 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.
What about future recording projects?
Although it doesn't yet have a title, I've gathered 14 or 15 of my
favorite musical melodies. Some are violin pieces, others operatic,
going all the way from Monteverdi to modern. Basically it's a desert
island beautiful melody compilation that I'm playing with orchestra.
I'm 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 I'm planning to record the Tchaikovsky Concerto again; I recorded
it a long time ago.
The opera arias may include “Casta Diva” and the
duet from Pearl Fishers. We're
still deciding among 20 possible pieces.
Everyone knows Callas' recording of “Casta Diva,” but you might want
to check out the version by Claudia Muzio, recorded at the end of her
life. It's a little fast, given that it's on a '78. She really “gets
it” 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?
put it in perspective, compared to people in other fields such as
movies and pop music, it's really very minimal. I don't get recognized
on the street every other minute. Yet, maybe for conventional
classical music, I've done some things that are out of the normal
I do have a problem when I feel the marketing
doesn't 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
“People Magazine says such and
such.” But it also bothers me when I play for a 3/4 empty hall. It's
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. You're always
walking that line. I'm trying to do it, but it's not always easy. And
I don't always have a good perspective on how people view it.
we're back to the question of balance. The yoga and meditation will
help a lot with that.