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Just Joshing: a profile of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell

Features - Classical Music | Orchestral | Instrumental

Just Joshing: a profile of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell

by Jo Litson on April 10, 2017 (April 10, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Orchestral | Instrumental | Comment Now
From busker to band leader, meet the young gun turned experienced hand.

Directing a prestigious orchestra while maintaining a high-flying international career as a soloist is quite an undertaking. Leading them from first violin is no doddle either, especially if you’ve never studied conducting. But virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell didn’t hesitate when offered the role of Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 2011.

Bell is the only person to hold the position since Sir Neville Marriner (who died in 2016 aged 92) founded the illustrious British chamber orchestra in 1958. “It’s really a dream for me, a dream come true,” he says, chatting affably on the phone from his New York apartment, “because, first of all, I’m not giving up playing my concertos with orchestras. When I’m with [the Academy] that’s exactly what I’m doing, but I have the added role now of directing them on the same programme.”

Violinist Joshua BellVirtuoso violinist Joshua Bell. Photo © Phil Knott

“I guess it’s more work, but it’s very satisfying musically. Artistically, it’s a whole new venture for me. I could get by going from one orchestra to another, playing my Tchaikovsky concerto. I could make a nice living from that and I’d enjoy it but, in my profession, I think you need to be challenging yourself and feeling like you’re growing and learning. So, I’m just having a ball with them. They’re also one of the greatest orchestras in the world, I think.”

On top of being “amazing” musicians, the members of the Academy are “fun people to travel with”, adds Bell – which is a blessing, given the large amount of touring they have planned together, including a highly anticipated visit to Australia in April. Though the Orchestra played at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in 2010, it’s the first time it has undertaken a national tour of Australia in nearly 30 years, with two different concert programmes in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Bell’s relationship with the Academy goes all the way back to 1988 when he recorded his debut album (the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos) with them aged just 18. Now 49, and one of classical music’s biggest stars, the American violinist had been playing with the Orchestra as a guest artist for over a decade before becoming Musical Director, so you could say he already knew them pretty well.

Recent reviews have remarked on the tangible rapport and free-flowing dynamic that has developed between Bell and the other musicians since his appointment. Reviewing an “arresting” concert in London in November 2015, Bachtrack said that the performance left the critic “and no doubt many in the audience, hoping that Joshua Bell’s tenure might rival Neville Marriner’s in length, invention and revelation.”

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the FieldsJoshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Photo © Ian Douglass

Born in Bloomingdale, Indiana in 1967, Bell was given his first violin at age four when his parents saw him ‘playing’ rubber bands stretched between the handles of his dresser, picking out tunes he had heard his mother play on the piano. He began studying with the legendary Russian-born violinist Josef Gingold at Indiana University when he was 12. Two years later, he performed with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra, then made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 17.

For some musicians, the transition from child prodigy to adult performer can be vexed, but it seems to have happened almost imperceptibly for Bell. “I just never thought of there being some sort of threshold to cross over,” he says. “I guess I’ve been doing it professionally since I was 14, but I wasn’t thrust upon the scene playing 100 concerts overnight. I didn’t do a major competition. It all kind of happened organically, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a continuous process of learning and getting better. I still feel like I’m getting better – and I can say that because I guess I left a lot of room to get better!” he says with a laugh.

“I don’t know if I’m one of the lucky ones, who’s never had any sort of identity crisis with music, like ‘why am I doing this?’, because I didn’t have parents that forced me. My parents were not musicians so they never expected me to become a musician. They never put pressure on me. I put pressure on myself, because I really wanted to [be successful]. But I think that because it came from me, I never had that big crisis that some prodigies who are led around by their teachers and parents can struggle with as they get older: is this what they really want?”

Famously, Bell became something of a household name thanks to an experiment on a platform far removed from the concert hall. In 2007, as part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story examining art and context for the Washington Post, he donned a baseball cap and gave an incognito performance as a busker in a subway station in Washington DC. Of the 1000 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen. Bell collected $32.17 from 27 people, excluding $20 from a woman who recognised him.

He has been involved in various other side-bar and cross-over projects over the years. He played on the soundtrack of the 1998 Canadian film The Red Violin. He has appeared on Sesame Street and was recently seen in the third season of the web television series Mozart in the Jungle – inspired by oboist Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir about her professional career in New York – having already put in appearances in the first two seasons.

Last year, he filmed a guest spot on Julie’s Greenroom, a new preschool show from The Jim Henson Company featuring Julie Andrews and a cast of puppet kids learning about the performing arts, which debuted in March. “I’m in the classical music episode. I kind of do skits and fun things with puppets, a Sesame Street-type thing,” says Bell, descbring the experience as “a blast”.

“I’ve always enjoyed little guest spots. I actually enjoy being in front of the camera. I’ve gotten a real kick out of it. [Last June] I did a cameo on [American TV show] Royal Pains. I got to do a little scene with the Fonz, Henry Winkler, who I grew up watching on TV in the 70s. It’s fun to meet people from other fields that I admire and it’s also just fun to get out of my comfort zone,” he says.

For all those diversions, his passion for classical music is unwavering as he continues to perform with leading orchestras around the world. This year, his calendar includes engagements with the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony among others, as well as various recitals. Then there’s his substantial commitment to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Bell knew that he wanted to make music with the Academy for the simple reason that he likes their attitude and the way they play. “The most important thing is that they give a lot in a concert. They sit on the edge of their seats and really play, and part of that is because of the way I’m directing,” he says. “I direct from the violin, and I alternate between waving my arms and playing – it’s kind of my own little mix of conducting-playing, but it forces them to be very proactive. They all lead in some way, and they can never just sit back and get lazy. It’s a great atmosphere for making music.”

Violinist Joshua BellJoshua Bell. Photo © Phil Knott

Asked what he hopes his input might be, he says: “This orchestra’s always been known for its great refinement, and incredible, tasteful music making, and I think that’s still there. What I bring is maybe a little more edge.”

“Whether you like [my interpretation] or not, I play as if it’s life or death. Every day I give my one hundred percent, I put my entire person into making music. Leading by that example, I hope it’s creating an energy that perhaps might be different from what they had before. It’s not for me to say. Any time you have a different person directing, you’re going to have a different sound, a different feel. But I’m hoping what I bring to them is the kind of energy that’s hopefully reinvigorating the orchestra.”

In Australia, the Academy will present two different concerts in each city. The repertoire will include Tchaikovsky’s notoriously taxing Violin Concerto in D and the slow movement of Schumann’s lyrical Violin Concerto – both dazzling showcases for Bell’s captivating, silky-toned playing. Brisbane gets Bruch’s hugely popular Violin Concerto No 1 instead of the Tchaikovsky.

The Orchestra will also play Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No 3, the Eroica, and Mozart’s dark, stormy Symphony No 25 – heard in the opening moments of Miloš Forman’s 1984 Academy Award-winning film Amadeus. The soundtrack, performed by the Academy under the baton of  Sir Neville, is one of the best-selling classical music recordings of all time.

Bell thinks it will be “an interesting experience for a listener to see someone play the Tchaikovsky without a conductor, because in this case I’m standing and playing and there’s a lot of flexibility. It’s a piece you’d think would need a conductor in the middle. But I’ve played this concerto probably a thousand times and I’ve probably enjoyed it the most doing it without a conductor, and with them listening and playing like chamber music,” he says.

“Normally you would play the Tchaikovsky with a 60 to 80-piece orchestra. This is 40 people instead. It’s a little more compact, and you would think it would be less powerful but smaller doesn’t always mean less powerful because the energy and precision are there. It actually ends up being more impactful than a big, lethargic beast of an orchestra that may have more players. But it’s a different kind of experience,” says Bell.

“The Mozart concerto is more often done without a conductor and led from the violin; that’s more traditional. With Mozart, I play my own cadenzas. Tchaikovsky included his own, but I tend to like to write my own for violin concertos and for the Mozart I will.”

Having had a taste of conducting, Bell is interested in doing more, without the violin. “I’m doing that little by little, here and there,” he says. “[In February] with the Montreal Symphony and the National Symphony in Washington I did Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, on the second night without my violin, so I’m dipping my feet in the water there and enjoying it. But I’m taking that slowly with pieces I feel very comfortable with, and I’ll eventually grow my repertoire in that department.”

“But I love playing [with ASMF] and this style of doing it. I don’t know I’d want to jump in front of any orchestra and try and lead them the way I do the Academy. It takes a bit of getting used to from the orchestra’s standpoint and if they’re not used to it, I don’t know what the result would be. But with the Academy, it’s fantastic.”

Bell is a great advocate for music as an educational and diplomatic tool. In 2014, he went back to the Washington DC metro station, scene of his busking experiment, and played Mendelssohn and Bach, accompanied by nine students, to promote music education. He was a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and in April 2106 he took part in the US government’s inaugural Cultural Delegation to Cuba where he played with the Chamber Orchestra of Havana. He was also involved with Turnaround Arts, a signature programme led by Michelle Obama providing arts education to disadvantaged schools.

Asked if he can imagine similar initiatives happening under President Trump, he laughs. “At the moment I cannot imagine it. I think everyone in my business is going to still try and do their best, see what we can get done. I try not to talk too much politics, because music has to somehow be above party politics and things like that. I don’t know what’s going to come as far as art is concerned. In the States, I’m afraid to say the government has never had a huge role in the arts.”

“I mean, I wish they had more but we have managed to make it without huge government support, because we have so much private interest in the arts. In a way, European cities are having to learn from us now because their governments are supporting the arts less and less so they’re having to learn how to raise funds. But I would like to see more government involvement in the arts, and most importantly, education. I think education’s where the most benefit is going to be, and keeping art and music in schools is vital. It’s part of what it means to be a human being, having art and music, and it has to be in the schools. Sadly, it’s often being put aside as an afterschool [activity], which is not what it should be.”

As you’d expect his own children are all involved with music. Bell has three sons with former girlfriend Lisa Matricardi – Josef (named after Josef Gingold), aged nine, and twins Benjamin and Samuel, aged six. Matricardi has remained a close friend, and she and the children live just a few blocks away from him in New York so they are able to spend time together.

“I have three little kids and they’re lucky because their parents believe in music and the importance of it, so they’re gonna get it no matter what,” he says. “They go to a public school that specialises in music, and it just so happens that at this school, the academics are among the top three in New York City. It’s not a coincidence. So often when you get a music education, I really think it helps in all other areas. I think there’s been studies to prove it; when you learn music, it helps your brain in a lot of ways. And I think more schools should actually use music as a centre of their education. Music is related to math, language, foreign language, camaraderie, teamwork – all these skills come from making music,” argues Bell.

“My oldest plays cello, the younger two twins play violin and piano. They may not become musicians, but they have to have music in their lives. They don’t want to always practise, but I know when they grow up because
of their foundation, they’ll be going to concerts.”

Though music is central to his own life, Bell – who is known to enjoy video games and sport – enjoys plenty of other activities in his rare spare time. “Oh yes, I get away from music!” he says. “I just got back from Europe three days ago now and I haven’t touched my violin, haven’t even opened up the case. But when I’m travelling, food is a major hobby of mine, finding great restaurants and exploring [different cuisines]. I just got back from Japan and it’s just heaven for foodies. I also love sports. I’m trying to get back into tennis. That was my New Year’s Resolution,” he says.

“I just got a house out of New York City, sort of in the wilderness where I can bring my kids, so they can get some outdoor experience, play around in the woods. I grew up with that in Indiana. But the house has a tennis court attached to it, so this is now my new resolution, because I was a big tennis player. As a 10 to 12-year old I was competitive and loved it. Then I started getting into golf – I took a wrong turn,” he says laughing.

“I’m a huge fan of American football, so I spend a lot of time [watching that], even on the road in Europe and Asia. That’s the great thing about modern technology. I have a subscription so I could watch every single football game streamed on the Internet. So, I’m often up at five in the morning, watching games. My team is the Indianapolis Colts, but I follow all the teams. I just love the sport. It’s a total distraction from music, but you need things to get your mind off it.”


Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields play concerts at Melbourne Recital Centre on April 19 & 20, at Sydney Opera House on April 22 & 23, and at Brisbane’s QPAC on April 26 & 27

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