Joshua Bell, violin virtuoso
Feature: Violinist Joshua Bell Balances Super-Stardom, Conducting and Hanging Out with Malcom McDowell
By Paul Hodgins
The Orange County Register
September 15, 2017
Joshua Bell is no longer officially a wunderkind – he turns 50 in December – but the virtuoso violinist still sounds like an excitable kid when he talks about the myriad projects, people and pieces that form his busy professional orbit.
“I hate the term ‘conservative!’” Bell snaps as we chat about Jean Sibelius, whose violin concerto will be the star of the show on Saturday when Bell performs it with conductor Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony. “That’s thrown at Brahms and Bach. Yet they’re both so innovative. To slap the word ‘conservative’ on (Sibelius) is so unfair.”
Clearly Bell hates labels, too, especially when applied to a composer as complex as Sibelius, a Finn who was almost 92 when he died in 1957, but whose music never followed the raucous trails to modernity blazed by his contemporaries, such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. “You can innovate without reinventing. To me he has such a unique voice, and I would never think of it as conservative. His music feels unlike anyone else’s.”
The Violin Concerto in D Minor, Sibelius’ only concerto of any kind, was written in 1904 and completely revised a year later. It is this version that has become enduringly popular, and many violin superstars, from Heifetz onwards, have recorded it. Bell laid down a well-received interpretation with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When asked if his approach to the work has changed since the CD was released, Bell admitted to something surprising.
“I haven’t listened to that recording since I was editing it in 1999. I move on, and (my interpretation) naturally evolves. I hope I play it better now. I think (every artist) thinks of new ideas and throws out old ones constantly. Even from night to night my interpretation can change a lot.”
Likewise, Bell doesn’t listen to others’ recordings of the Sibelius either. “Heifetz, I grew up with his recording. And Zukerman’s – his dark sound was very conducive to that piece, which uses the G-string (the violin’s lowest string) a lot. It sounded rich and viola-like.
“But I haven’t heard it since I was 14. As you get older you develop a special relationship with these pieces that you play a lot. I tend not to go back and listen to other people’s interpretations.”
Hanging out with Malcolm McDowell
The Sibelius concerto is a work that demands a lot from the orchestra as well as the soloist, and Bell won’t perform it with every symphony that asks.
“I agree to do this piece only when I have a conductor that I trust and like. Carl (St.Clair) is someone who I am matched with fully. His control of the orchestra is masterful. He’s someone I would implicitly trust with a piece like this. I’ve known Carl for a couple of decades; we’ve worked together many times in California. He’s someone I admire and enjoy.”
In the concerto, Sibelius’ score for the orchestra isn’t merely an accompaniment. It’s fully symphonic in conception, busy and full even when the soloist is playing, which Bell said can create issues. “It’s a huge, challenging work, and the orchestra can fight with the violinist. Sometimes (the soloist) is almost covered by the score. But that makes things very interesting.”
Bell’s busy solo career has been complemented over the last few years by an equally impressive and date-filled stint as a conductor. He was selected to be music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields by the London ensemble’s musicians in 2011. Bell is the only the second person to hold the post; he followed Sir Neville Marriner, who formed the orchestra in 1958.
“What I do with St Martin is conduct and play,” Bell said. “When I’m doing concertos, I do both. It’s more to do and an incredibly interesting challenge for me. It’s like a dream come true to interpret and record that stuff. I love working out every detail of a concerto without going through a conductor.”
Bell’s violin is a Stradivarius called the Gibson ex Huberman, which was crafted in 1713 during what is known as Antonio Stradivari’s “Golden Era.” Bell paid a little under its $4 million asking price. It’s an instrument with a history as storied and adventurous as the fiddle that was the star of “The Red Violin.” Stolen in 1936 from the dressing room of virtuoso violinist Bronislaw Huberman, it remained missing for half a century before a deathbed confession brought it back into the light. Bell’s purchase saved it from a rich man’s collection, where it would have slumbered unplayed. Is it still his instrument of choice? “Always. It’s been 16 years since I bought it. It was the week of 9/11 when I fell in love with this violin. It’s hard to forget a week like that.”
Bell accepts that behind-the-scenes stories like that one, as much as the music itself, are important to his profession today. That’s why people who’ve never been to a concert hall often recognize him. Bell says his cameo appearances on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle” have made him popular with a new audience. “I’ve had people come to my concerts saying they’d never been to a classical performance but they saw me on TV and got intrigued. I think it’s important that classical music remain part of popular culture in different ways. In the old days, 30 years ago, I used to go on the Johnny Carson show as a guest, and I played at the Grammy Awards. That era is gone.”
Bell also admits he’s attracted to non-musical performing because he’s as star-struck as anyone else. “It’s fun working with people I loved as a kid – Julie Andrews and Henry Winkler and Malcolm McDowell. People might ask, ‘Why is he wasting his time with that kind of stuff?’ Well, life is short. If I can be on a TV show with Malcolm McDowell and hang out with him, I’m jumping on it!”
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