Feature Article

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 “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 link (http://www.joshuabell.com) 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.

JVS: 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?

JB: 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 things.

JVS: I 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 same time.

JB: 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 everything.

JVS: How 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?

JB:  The 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.

JVS: And then, when you bought your new Stradivarius, which I've 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 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.

JVS: 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.

JB: The 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 Mendelssohn.

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.

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. 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 (Sony).

JVS: I 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 many others.

JB: 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 overall arch.

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.

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, 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.

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 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.

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

JB: Yes, 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.

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

JB: I'm coming to Stanford next season, but not to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). 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 rapport.

JVS: You've done a project to help bring the violin and classical music to children.

JB: I 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.

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 what's happening with music education?

JB: 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.

JVS: There's 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? 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 pan out.

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.

JVS: Are there composers who are writing for you?

JB: John 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.

JVS: What about future recording projects?

JB: 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.

JVS: 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?

JB: To 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 bounds.

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.

JVS: So we're 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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