Violinist Joshua Bell Reflects on Career and Performing in Washington
Violinist Joshua Bell is no longer the boyish phenomenon of the classical musical world. Now 44 – and still boyishly handsome and charismatic – Bell is a bona fide superstar in his world, which includes a host of other stars, from Yitzhak Perlman to Hilary Hahn.
These days, Bell continues to keep a hectic travel schedule and performing schedule that will include a Nov. 1 performance at the Music Center at Strathmore, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at 8 p.m.
With Sam Haywood on the piano, he’ll be performing works by Schubert (Rondo for Piano in B minor, Op. 70) Strauss (Sonata for Violin and Piano in E flat Major, Op. 18), and Prokofiev (Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94).
Bell is by now a familiar visitor to Washington concert halls and performing arts venues, having played often at the Kennedy Center and at the Music Center at Strathmore since it arrived seven years ago.
“Each offers pleasures and challenges for a musician and they do for me,” Bell said in a telephone interview. “Like many musicians, I admire the acoustics and the environment at Strathmore, it creates a kind of intimacy and sound that’s rare. And of course, the Kennedy Center is a very special place for me. Every time I come here, it’s something of a homecoming for me. I was here for the first time at a Kennedy Center Honors when I was only 17, so each occasion, it’s something comfortable and welcoming for me.”
In the middle stages of his career, Bell still likes his challenges, and his tastes remain eclectic. In 2011, he created one of the finest amalgams of classical and pop music ever recorded with “Joshua Bell at home with friends”. Home is a two-floor penthouse in New York that includes a recording studio, and his friends were folks like Sting, Jeremy Denko, Josh Groban, Kristin Chenoweth, Frankie Moreno, Jonathan Gunn, Regina Spector, David Finck, Anoushka Shankar and the late Marvin Hamlisch. The music was rangy from “My Funny Valentine”, to “Look Away”, Spector’s “Left Hand Song”, music from “Porgy and Bess”, to Sergei Rachmoninoff to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and others. The result was bliss.
“I loved doing that, of course, but I don’t think that’s going to be indicative of where I might be going,” he said.
Prior to that he had also participated in a cultural experiment which saw him playing a very expensive violin at a Metro Station during rush hour, performing Brahms, documented in a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post Magazine story. Bell got meager recompense, and was rarely engaged by passers by, few of whom stopped. “Well, it was interesting experiment,” he said.
Lately, he’s taken on a major challenge when he was named the new music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the venerable and conductor-less chamber ensemble founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958. In response to the announcement, Bell said, “I have felt a particular affection for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields ever since I made my very first concerto recording with them under the baton of Marriner when I was just 18 years old. Since then, the orchestra has come to feel like family to me, as we have shared so many cherished moments together.”
“It’s taking on a major responsibility, it’s a bit of a risk,” he said. “But it lets me explore with the institution and the orchestra certain kinds of music which will be challenging, but it’s also something I’ve thought about for some time now, to explore the symphonic repertoire.”
With Bell, it appears that challenges are about knowing when to take them on. “There are some pieces of music that I haven’t done, because I felt I might not do them justice in terms of recording them.”
Recently, Bell and Jeremy Denk record “French Impressions”, with sonatas by Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Franck, marking the two men’s first recital together and allowing Bell to pay tribute to his mentor Josef Gingold with a recording of Cesar Frank’s “Violin Sonata.”
Bell has been in the heat of the public eye since he was 14, he’s one of those performers who packs a lot of charisma, with a riveting performing style and his oft-mentioned good looks. Truth be told, he doesn’t really think that how he looks matters, even though the classical music business, like many things in our modern times, likes to market musicians who look good on an CD cover. “I personally don’t think that’s important at all,” he said, “You’ve got to remember the great Fritz Kreisler was a very handsome man, women loved him, I’m told, but this is about marketing. It has nothing to do with music or your place in the world.”