Can I bring you to the Hollywood Bowl for a moment? Imagine perfect weather (this is Los Angeles, after all): a pink sky, at dusk, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic warming up under a clean white arch. The audience stretches up a Hollywood hillside, with much of it organized into terraced cubicles for eating dinner. People sit in on green canvas lawn chairs, with little foldout tables on which they've placed wine bottles and glasses, colored table cloths, cheese and grapes, food from baskets, Tupperware and tins. They chat and giggle and generally get rather squirrelly as they drain those bottles.
The sunset brings mild chill, and as darkness falls I look at my $1 program and think, what could be more tiresome than a Berlioz March? The Hollywood Bowl seats some 18,000 patrons, thus for everyone to see the action, it requires not only two large video screens that flank the stage, but also other sets of screens higher up, for those in back. To me, the Berlioz seemed rather amplified and distant, and I had to remind myself to watch the real orchestra and not just stare at the T.V. screen. The Berlioz had not arrested anyone's attention, certainly not mine, when violinist Joshua Bell emerged on the stage to much applause but also still to much chair scraping, chattering, clanking of dinnerware and giggling.
That was until that first spellbinding utterance from Bell's Stradivarius, in Ernest Chausson's Poéme. Suddenly the audience quieted; the only extra noise came from the singing crickets on the hillside. If the performance had until this moment seemed like a distant concert on a screen, it now felt live, with Bell to focus it. What makes for a world-class soloist? It's this ability to grab people with your sound and hold them rapt.
The Chausson Poéme is a piece with an amorphous beginning in the orchestra, which slowly swirls around itself, until the solo violin takes over. It's a rather exposed beginning for the soloist, but I imagine that with the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin of 1713, one might not feel alone. Bell has Strad sound, and he's not afraid to use it in all its glorious range, from the laid-bare intimacy of the Poéme's introduction, to a mounting series of double stops that flows into the all-out emotional wailing at the center of this piece.
You might say, 'Yeah, if I had a Strad, I could play like that.' But not so. It's the other way around. If you were driven your whole life to play like that, then you might recognize your voice in that Strad and bank your whole existence on buying it, like he did. He may be a violin superstar, but I'm still guessing that $4 million put a dent in his wallet.
The close-cropped TV images of Bell emphasized his considerable movement during performing; and they also allowed for a peek at technique, which I enjoyed especially during Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, a piece written in 1863 and dedicated to the technical wizard, Pablo de Sarasate. I noticed that Bell does indeed use a shoulder rest, but he by no means clenches with the neck; very often his head is far back and the fiddle is completely cradled by the left hand. His chinrest is right in the middle, over the tailpiece.
The day after this performance, I interviewed Joshua Bell at his publicist's home in Studio City. It was his last in what sounded like a marathon day of interviews. He wore white shirt and dark pants, his boyish mop of hair messy and tousled. He talked with patience and polish through most any subject. His face lit up a few times – when he spoke about writing cadenzas, and conducting. He said he also loves computers, science and gadgets.
We began with the topic of his new recording, Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, with musicians from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Laurie Niles: What made you decide to record The Four Seasons? It's a very popular piece of music, and it's definitely been done before. Where were you coming from with this recording? What is there new to say?
Joshua Bell: Well, you could say that about any piece of classical music. We're always retelling the stories, but they're stories that are relevant and very personal. You really won't find two interpretations alike of the Vivaldi, especially today. First, you have so many different ways of approaching Baroque music, from the hardcore early-instrument approach, to the people who dive into it wholeheartedly – the Romantic approach -- which is, I think, equally valid. Also, the Vivaldi has so much room for ornamentation and improvisation. So I think there's always room for another version of The Four Seasons.
And for me, I've been playing it since I was very young, and I've probably performed it hundreds of times. I had been touring it with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and I felt ready to put it down on disc. Basically, it's my version, at this point in my life. A year from now, I'd probably play it differently. But that's all you can really say about a recording, that it's a snapshot in time. Unfortunately, it lives forever, and people view it as being the way I play that piece.
I do the same thing listening to the old Heifetz records. I think, "This is the way Heifetz did it." I have to remember that this is just a snapshot of the way he did it that particular day.
So it's a bit daunting, when you go in the studio thinking, "This is the way it's gonna be down for your legacy, for your grandchildren, as the way you did it." I'm careful before I record something, that I feel ready enough to do it. I felt ready for The Four Seasons.
Laurie: Where would you put your approach to this music, in terms of early music approach and the Romantic approach?
Joshua: I've had a lot of different influences. My primary influence was Josef Gingold, and you might say, he comes from the old school. But within the old school, there were different approaches as well. Gingold was born in Russia, but yet he studied with Ysaye. Really, his way of playing lent itself more to the French-Belgian school, rather than the traditional Russian school. But in his day and age, there was the common denominator among whatever schools there were, that there wasn't a lot of thought about, or worrying about, being authentic. In a way, I love that. I love the fact that the music was unabashedly expressive, not self-conscious about style. It was very honest. Of course, it wasn't the way Vivaldi would have heard it in his time. But there's an honesty to that way of playing which is really wonderful.
The early music approach has done wonderful things as well. It's raised our awareness as to what it might have sounded like at the time, and also done great things with tempo, that over the years had gotten heavier and slower in the approach to Baroque music.
It reenergized, the approach to a lot of this music, even Beethoven's symphonies, when people like Roger Norrington and [John Eliot] Gardiner came along and took some of the weight and heaviness out of a lot of these pieces.
That's an important thing too. I've performed with Roger Norrington, and I recorded a Beethoven and Mendelssohn (performance) with Norrington. I've performed with John Eliot Gardiner.
The musician I play the most with is Stephen Isserlis, a cellist who I think is one of my biggest influences. He has a very different approach to playing the cello, which is hard to categorize, just because it's not self-consciously Baroque. Yet he's more leaning towards that camp than a lot of cellists today. So I've had a lot of influences. I'm a mishmash of all those things.
Certainly my approach to the use of vibrato is something that I feel I like to vary a lot, and not overuse. I think of vibrato as being an ornament, not a constant. I think that's the way the vibrato originally developed, as more of an ornament than something that you just paint on every note.
My concern with Baroque music is that it doesn't sound too self-conscious. Often I find that the Baroque approach will sound so stylized, that the actual expression kind of gets lost. Also, The Four Seasons has a lot of humor and cheekiness and fun, and a peasant way of playing. It's not all refined. It shouldn't sound all perfectly refined and dainty.
Hopefully, some of that element came out in the recording. I think the harpsichord player did a lot of fun improvisation and irreverent improvisations that helped characterize a lot of the movements. I was happy with the collaboration.
Laurie: So you were riffing off the harpsichord player a little bit?
Joshua: Yeah. Sure. Definitely that happens a lot in concert. Every night was something different; he would spur me on to a different kind of ornamentation. A lot of the tone was set by the harpsichord player (John Constable) as well.
Laurie: So you didn't take out the manual and go, "I think in this case, I need to –" and plan out every ornament?
Joshua: No. Obviously, after doing lots of performances of it, varying it from night to night, I'd feel that certain things worked better than others, and I'd try to remember them. But I would experiment around, even in the recording studio. When I was editing the record, I'd have to choose between which ones I thought sounded better. So I wasn't completely set on exactly what I was going to do.
Laurie: I noticed that you recorded The Devil's Trill on there too. Do you have any thoughts on practicing trills?
Joshua: Like vibrato, trills can vary so much, depending on the context. Sometimes I like a very slow trill. Like at the end of the Chausson "Poéme," I like a trill that gets slower and slower, until it becomes one note.
Again, it's an ornament. One of the mistakes I feel that students make is that the trills all sound like you stuck your finger in an electric socket. (He laughs.) It may be impressive to do something like that. But it doesn't sound organic or musical at all, if it sounds like the way a synthesizer would do a perfect trill.
Laurie: The cell phone trill?
Joshua: A trill is not supposed to sound like that. So I play around with it, what feels right to me: sometimes fast, sometimes slow. There are tricks that I use sometimes. If it's a half-step trill, and it's very high up, sometimes I just actually do it like a fast vibrato and let it hit the note. But that creates a different kind of sound as well. Sometimes it sounds better to have a clean, independent motion with the finger. It all depends on what you think is appropriate for the situation.
The same with vibrato. Every note should have its own vibrato, depending on the color and the mood. When you're used to varying your vibrato, it happens naturally. You shouldn't even have to think about it; it becomes organic to your playing. But you can experiment in the practice room with vibrato. It's something very hard to teach. I think I developed my own sort of arm vibrato that works for me. It's sort of something very personal and distinct. When you listen to old recordings, Heifetz's vibrato was very distinct.
Laurie: That brings me to the idea of teaching. I know that you've developed a new affiliation with Indiana University. Are you moving in the direction of teaching?
Joshua: Well, although I live much of the time in New York; Bloomington, Indiana is still my home. My family lives there. I grew up around the university, so I've always felt very close to it. I wouldn't dream of taking on a teaching position anywhere else. They've been asking me for a while to teach at the university, so I've taken on a small commitment – two weeks a year, at the moment. It's just one week each semester. But eventually, hopefully, it will grow into something more. But I don't want to give up my concert schedule.
Laurie: It would be really hard to teach with a full concert schedule.
Joshua: And it's very, very time-consuming and exhausting to teach. But I've set aside two weeks each year, to start.
Laurie: Do you like teaching?
Joshua: I do. I enjoy teaching and trying to analyze something with the student. It makes me rethink things. It can be frustrating, when things that you feel are natural and obvious, are not to somebody else. Obviously it's nice to teach students that are talented. But I'm sure teaching students that are not so instinctual could be an interesting challenge as well. I haven't done that much. I haven't done a lot of teaching.
When I work with an orchestra – a youth orchestra, or I'm leading or directing an orchestra – I feel that I'm playing the role of teacher, explaining why I want to do something, and why it makes sense, and getting them to do it in a way that feels natural, and not just kind of imitating something I'm telling them to do.
Laurie: That sounds like conducting. Have you thought about that too?
Joshua: Well, I'm doing some, mostly from the violin. I've gotten a chance to do a lot of that in the last few years.
I had an appointment at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where we got to do lots of Mozart, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. We did it leading from the violin, but it was basically conducting. I'm gravitating towards doing more of that.
Laurie: People love the arrangements you used for your Romance of the Violin, Gershwin Fantasy; and West Side Story albums. Are you ever going to make them available? What is your take on possibly publishing violin and piano reductions on those?
Joshua: That's one of the things I really want to work on in the next couple of years, because I've worked with these arrangers and come up with, I think, some fun arrangements. I want to make a "Romance of the Violin" collection and "Voice of the Violin" collection. I get a lot of e-mails from people asking for arrangements that are just not available yet. I've just been so busy, that I need to take some time to figure that out. That is something that will come out soon.
I want to publish some of my cadenzas, as well. I've got to write them down! [He laughs.]
Laurie: How did you go about doing those cadenzas? You didn't write them down?
Joshua: No. I've had to write some of them down when I make the recordings of them, for the producer to have something to look at. But generally, I compose them with the violin. And by the time I've figured it out, it's so in my head, that I don't bother to write them down.
It's the most fun and creative thing I think I've done, to sit down to write a new cadenza. It started with the Brahms Concerto when I was 20 years old.
Laurie: Were you scared at all? People have been using the same cadenzas for so long.
Joshua: Well, I was scared to play it. When I wrote it, I was doing it just for fun. Actually, the second it was done, I never went back to any other cadenza. Because I figured, "I've just written this, and it's different. And why not do it?"
The same thing happened with the Mendelssohn Concerto. I think I'm the only one that plays a different cadenza than Mendelssohn's.
Laurie: No barriolage or anything? Don't you have to get back to the orchestra with that –
Joshua: Well, I get into it in a different way.
Laurie: In a different way? [Laughter]
Joshua: That was one of the big challenges, is how to get back into it. And I had to come at it from a different angle, which was fun. But I did it for fun, for myself. The Mendelssohn Concerto is one of my top three violin concertos. It's the most sublime, perfect piece. But frankly, the cadenza was never my favorite part of the Mendelssohn. Except the end [of the cadenza]. I don't know for sure, but I wonder how much Ferdinand David, for whom it was written, actually contributed to the cadenza. That's, at least, my excuse for saying that I should be allowed to do mine.
But the thing is, at the time, I was expecting more criticism about it. I haven't had too much -- to my face, at least. I think in Mendelssohn's time, if someone were to say, "I'm going to play my own cadenza," it wouldn't even be an issue.
Joshua: I mean Mendelssohn himself wrote piano accompaniments to the Bach Chaccone. It shows how the view of music was very wide open. Here we had Bach Chaccone, which is the most sacred and perfect piece -- How could you ever improve on it? And Mendelssohn and Schumann and others, they added the piano accompaniment, just for the celebration of the music, in their own way. No one, at that time, would ever say, "Oh, you're defiling the piece." That's just what was done. Music was very much more free to experiment We're kind of obsessed a little bit too much with authentic playing of everything – authentically in the original form. That's why I enjoy being a little irreverent with the arrangements. I arranged, for the Voice of the Violin, the Mozart Piano Concerto, the famous slow movement. I always thought, "Actually, I think it sounds better on the violin."
The piano is not the most singing,melodic instrument. To me, those slow movements in Mozart can sing on the violin better. And it's also a throwback to my old heroes, like Heifetz and [Fritz] Kreisler, who did that all the time.
Laurie: Do you still play video games? How about Guitar Hero? [Laughter]
Joshua: My video game days are waning a bit. I've just built my house, my apartment in New York, and I did network the place for computers to play video games. I like playing over the Internet and playing with friends – mindless shoot-'em-up games, like Unreal or Quake. And I love computers. I'm always getting the latest. I just recently switched to Mac, so I'm giving that a try for a while. Of course, I have the new iPhone. But Guitar Hero, I've never played. I don't know. What's next? Violin Hero?
Laurie: A Violinist.com member asked: What was the weirdest thing that happened while you were busking?
Joshua: The weirdest thing about the busking thing is what's happened afterwards, like the fact that the article got spread everywhere. In almost every country I've been to, they ask me about it.
I was recently in Uruguay, on tour in South America. I had to perform, and I had an almost 103-degree fever. I was so sick, and I had to get up and play a recital, a two-hour recital with the Kreutzer Sonata, and F Minor Prokofiev, the Devil's Trill. I mean literally, I couldn't stand up the whole day.
That day, I called a doctor to come to the hotel room, because I was so sick. And he didn't even speak a word of English. But he saw my violin and said, "Oh, you're the subway - the subway -" In the middle of Uruguay, it was in the papers. I didn't expect to be talking about it a year and a half later.
Laurie: And the article won the Pulitzer Prize.
Joshua: Which only extended the discussions about it. It was fun to do. But I'm kind of ready to move on. I won't be doing it again.
Laurie: What is the worst, funniest, most interesting thing that's ever happened to you onstage?
Joshua: Probably the worst experience, that's funny now, would be early in my career, when I was playing in Alaska, and I had food poisoning. I was playing the Mendelssohn Concerto, and I was so nauseous and sick. I barely remember the slow movement, because I was trying to fight back throwing up. There's no break, even to run off stage.
Finally, I got to the end of the slow movement, and before the last movement, I just ran offstage. Actually, I ran offstage, and I couldn't find my dressing room! Finally, I made it, just in time, before I threw up. But that was in the middle of a concert. Then I went back on and played the last movement.
That was one of the most memorable. But it was not very nice.
In a way, another memorable experience was my debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was 14. That was my first big concert. I was playing with a sponge and a rubber band as my shoulder rest, and the rubber band had sort of come off. I felt it slipping. So just before the cadenza of the Mozart Concerto , I had just a few moments to get it back. I was quickly trying to put the rubber band in the right place, and I accidentally let go of it. It flew all the way across and hit the principal violist in the head! [Laughter] So I played the cadenza without a shoulder rest, and then after the first movement, [the orchestra members] all passed it along up to the front, where I reattached it. That was my debut.
Laurie: That brings me to one of the most important things to Violinist.com members –shoulder rests. We have this huge controversy going with shoulder rests. It's insanity. It could start another world war, over the morality of using a shoulder rest. I've always just used one, and I don't think about it.
Joshua: Well, my teacher before Gingold was Mimi Zweig, who I'm very close with still. And she has a great academy in Bloomington every summer. She professes that no one should use a shoulder rest.
So I'm going against her. [He smiles.] I think her advice is good. If you can do without it, it's good. But for me, I feel more comfortable with the shoulder rest. And in the end, relaxation is the key – and feeling that you're most efficiently using your muscles. So if you need to tense your shoulder to keep the violin in place, then playing without a shoulder rest is not doing you any good.
So I don't have a hard or fast rule. But you have to be comfortable and try relax the muscles that are not necessarily for playing the violin are not being used trying to hold your violin on your neck. So I use what Mimi calls a "Brooklyn Bridge."
Laurie: What about moving, while playing the violin, vs. standing still?
Joshua: Actually, I think a lot about trying to minimize movements when I play, or trying to be more efficient in my playing. But if I try to be totally still, I feel inhibited, and I can't be as expressive as I want to be. I'm sure certain people accuse me of moving around too much. And sometimes, they're absolutely right. I think there are times where you're actually making it more difficult, when you have a moving target.
But also, when you're playing with people, and especially when you're doing a lot more leading without a conductor – even with Mendelssohn and Beethoven concertos and Bruch concertos without a conductor -- the movement can demonstrate. I use movement to show a lot, basically conducting and playing at the same time. If you're almost dancing with the instrument a little bit, it conveys a certain way that the orchestra can feel – almost like a conductor's movements.
If I were to stand totally still and just move my right or left arms, it may sound just as good. Heifetz hardly moved. But he's a rare person to be able to do that. It would be hard to convey that way, when you're playing with an orchestra. Even playing with a conductor, I think they get a lot of cues from the movement as well. In the end, they have to follow me as much as they follow the conductor.
Laurie: What is your advice for aspiring violin soloists? For example, is there anything that you can think of now, that you wish you'd known back then, just to make life manageable, to cope with being a soloist?
Joshua: You kind of learn on the job, your way of doing it. I think it's dangerous to even start extolling advice about what to do when you're a soloist. Because one of the biggest problems amongst students going into colleges and schools is that they think that's the only ultimate goal: to be a soloist.
It's not for everybody, and it's not the only way to have a career in music. The great example that I had in front of me was my teacher, Gingold, who was an incredible violinist. He always played so much better than his students, which is not always the case.
He had such a rich life teaching. He was in a quartet with Primrose. He played under Toscanini and George Szell and made recordings as a soloist. And he had a very full life of doing a lot of different things. I think that it's important that young people know that there's a lot of ways to be a musician, and it's not just about playing concertos as a soloist.
I play a lot of chamber music, myself. It's a big part of my life. I think one of the things I've learned, also, is that there's not just one path to success. You have to find your own way. When I was a kid, many people told me, "There's only one way."
They said, "You have to go to Juilliard. You've got to move to New York and study with this teacher." I won't say who.... "And then you'll get your connections there." And I did my own thing. I stayed with Gingold and found my own way. And I didn't go to competitions – international competitions. I managed to avoid it. But I found my own way, and there's not just one way to do it.
If I might begin a slight rant about one of the problems I find -- even on websites like Violinist.com. It's a good thing that people talk about [the violin]. But if you go on YouTube – especially among young people, they have this sort of competition-type attitude when they listen to violinists play.
They make comments like, "This person sucks." If one says someone plays something well, the idea that you need to trash someone else. Of course, you have your favorite. But I think it's really important for young people to open their minds to other ways of playing and other ways of appreciating music.
I find that it's sort of a novice mistake. I find it even more among complete amateurs, who are not even in music at all. They've grown up with their one recording of a piece. They'll complain to me, "Oh, I heard this opera sung by this person. And oh, it's terrible, because it should be this way." Because this is the way they view that piece.
They're not able to open up their minds and enjoy it on the terms that the person is presenting it – as a performance. I'm guilty as much as anybody. But if you can unblock yourself and try to get inside an interpretation of someone that may be eccentric, or listen to an old Mischa Elman, without saying, "Oh God, those gross slides. Listen to the tasteless stuff." If you can try to get beyond that, and really see the poetry that's underneath it -- it's a different sound. There's room for a lot of ways of playing. That's what makes it so rich and interesting in the musical world.
Laurie: Who are some of your favorite violinists?Is there's a recording that you play for yourself, to remind you of why you love music?
Joshua: When it comes to the violin, [Jascha] Heifetz is always a big inspiration. Some people say that he's cold , which I don't agree with at all.
Laurie: Did you see him live, ever?
Joshua: I never saw him live. He stopped touring in the early seventies, I think, and I was five years old. There are things I don't agree with, times where I felt he rushes through things to quickly. But in a way, it's sort of an understatement. He didn't dwell in moment after moment. There was always this sense of the big picture in music. And also, of course, his incredible electricity.
I don't listen to a lot of violin playing anymore, just because I get so much of it. But sometimes when I feel I want inspiration, I'll watch or listen to a Heifetz record. He set the bar for the violin for the 20th century. He just raised it. And I always feel after I listen to it, I play better. I set the bar higher.
I love to listen to Arthur Grumiaux. I think he's one of the most singing violinists. I think of him as the equivalent of a great lieder singer. I love listening to great voices as well, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Also, watching Carlos Kleiber on video conducting the Bavarian [State Orchestra]. I love watching him conduct Beethoven's symphonies. Or even his Vienna New Year's Concert. He's conducting music that's not even my favorite music -- Strauss waltzes and things. He elevates it to great music. And what I like about Kleiber is that it seems like every tempo that he picks is exactly right. He's not trying to make a statement. Sometimes you feel, with conductors or violinists, that they're always trying to make a statement or be provocative in some way, instead of just finding the exact tempo. It should just feel right. It should be about the music. And with Kleiber, there's no showboating. You feel like he is what the Beethoven Symphony is supposed to be.
Those are the kind of musicians I like. For example, with someone like [pianist] Radu Lupu, it's just exactly right. It's not extreme in any way, yet there's nothing unexciting about his playing. It's exciting when it
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