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Pauline Lerner

Joshua Bell's 'At Home with Friends'

April 3, 2010 at 6:49 AM

Here are my personal reactions to Joshua Bell's latest CD Joshua Bell at Home with Friends.

When Joshua Bell makes music at home with friends, it's not the way I make music at home with friends. I clean the house, prepare a meal (usually), and put out some soda and junk food. I also put out some extra chairs, especially chairs without arms to accommodate various instrumentalists, in the living room. The mood is informal and the music is largely improvised. I have friends who play a variety of instruments or sing, and they enjoy a variety of kinds of music. I never know what we'll play, but I always know we'll have fun.

How does Joshua Bell make music in his living room? He discusses the subject in the liner notes to his newest CD, Joshua Bell at Home with Friends, and in Laurie Niles's interview with him on v.com.

Bell doesn't use a real living room. He uses a special room in his house that he designed with an architect to get the very best acoustics. He has entertained up to 200 people there, many of them sitting on pillows on the floor, and they love the "up-close-and-personal" feeling they get. He says that his home performances are not like 18th or 19th century musicales because they have an "anything goes" spirit. He might play a Brahms Sonata and follow it with some bluegrass music. (I never would have thought that Joshua Bell would play bluegrass music.) He invites a diverse group of friends to play music at these events -- singers, rock musicians, jazz musicians, and more. He decided that it would be fun to share his music with friends with a larger audience, so he spoke to people at Sony about it. When he got their go-ahead, he invited some of his musician friends to join him in making this recording. The CD was not exactly spontaneous and informal. Recording and mixing engineers were used, as were recording studios. I think the music is great, but I don't think it's quite like music played at home.

I believe that what makes this recording great is the new and unexpected pairing of instruments and, sometimes, voices, and the new ways of expressing emotions in old pieces of music. Musical compositions are not static. They take new life every time they are played, even in the recording studio.

I think my favorite track on the recording is Come Again Sweet Love, a Renaissance love song which Joshua Bell plays with Sting, but not live.  He plays with a commercially released recording by Sting. Sting has a very broad range of musical interests, and he excels in performing and reinventing all of them. The first time I listened "Come Again" on Joshua Bell's recording, I recognized it immediately from Sting's recording Songs from the Labyrinth, a compilation of Renaissance songs which Sting sings while accompanying himself on a lute. His melodic and harmonic achievements with his voice and this instrument are sweet, engaging, and exciting. In Sting's recording, the lute is featured as an equal to Sting's voice. However, in the magic of the recording studio used in Bell's recording, the sound of the lute disappears almost completely, leaving lots of space for the violin. (Try doing that in your own home.) In Bell's recording, the song is introduced by the violin playing an exquisite paraphrase of the main theme. Through the rest of the piece, the violin and vocal lines are intertwined in a way so balanced that one never seems to upstage the other. Bell plays some beautiful ornaments (he likes double stops and a wide range of pitch) and helps move the song as it swells, floats, and softens. His playing is sweet, lyrical, and clean. When I listen to it as a humble violinist, I hear Bell's technical virtuosity, and when I just listen to the song, I hear seemingly effortless beauty.

Another one of my favorites on this recording is Variant Moods:  Duet for Sitar and Violin (abridged version), written especially for Joshua Bell and Anoushka Shankar by Ravi Shankar, Anoushka's father, who coached them as they learned to play it.  Ravi Shankar, now in his eighties and in frail health, brought sitar music and Indian traditional music in general to the attention of the Western world in the 1960s with the help of such diverse musicians as George Harrison, of the Beatles, and Yehudi Menuhin.  I still have my old vinyl recording East Meets West by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin.  Anoushka Shankar is a great musician and the heir apparent to her father's musical life. In this CD, the sounds of the violin and the sitar are intertwined so beautifully that one would think that these two instruments were designed to be played together.  True to its title, the piece conveys moods very strongly and with a distinctly personal feeling.

Artistry and technology combine once again to create beautiful music on this recording in Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3, second movement, played by Joshua Bell and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  It would be awfully scary to perform that piece in your living room with Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is dead.  In the recording studio, Bell played along with a recording by Rachmaninoff.  I love the Grieg sonata, which I rarely hear, and this performance was great.

Eleanor Rigby, a Beatles song, is played on this CD by Joshua Bell and Frankie Moreno.  I am a devoted Beatles fan, and I'm always very skeptical about anyone else playing any of their songs.  I was surprised to find that I liked the Bell / Moreno version even better than I liked the original.  Bell and Moreno play this song with tremendous pathos and dignity, reminding me of the spirit of the classical Greek tragedies.  It endows everyday events with sympathy, respect, and universality.

The only song on this CD that I don't like is My Funny Valentine, featuring singer Kristin Chenoweth with Joshua Bell.  I've always heard this song as a gently teasing and deeply loving song about someone with human strengths and imperfections.  It is an endearing song for me.  This version is so different.  It makes me feel very sad.  In fact, if I listen to this CD when I'm feeling sad or depressed, I just skip this track.

I'm familiar with Joshua Bell's solo or concerto playing, where he makes the most of his considerable talent for showing off.  In this CD, Bell plays very much as a partner with each musician or singer.  His virtuosity is not "in your face," but if you listen closely, it is there and it is quite impressive.

I know that I'll never be invited to sit on a pillow on the floor with 199 of Joshua Bell's friends in his home.  Nor will I ever be in a recording studio where Bell is making another kind of music with his friends.  I'm very glad that I have this CD so that I can hear Bell playing with so many other people, in so many different styles, so beautifully.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 3, 2010 at 7:41 AM

I planned to embed a video, in which Joshua Bell discusses his new CD, in my blog. However, it has been removed from his website, and as far as I can tell, it is no longer possible to embed videos from Youtube. I can not even insert a link to it, although I've tried.  I can only recommend that you go to Youtube and search for "Joshua Bell at Home with Friends."  Curses!  It is a great video. 


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 3, 2010 at 8:01 AM

Aha!  I figured out how to embed the video from Youtube in my blog.  Enjoy.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 5, 2010 at 4:58 PM

 Loved reading this, Pauline! Thanks for taking the time to write it so well.  (I too am a big fan of the Grieg violin sonatas. Yum!)


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 6, 2010 at 11:41 PM

I'm glad you liked it, Terez.  I always appreciate your praise of my writing because you are a professional writer.  Thanks.

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