interview with Joshua Bell: At Home with Friends

October 7, 2009, 11:34 AM ·

Even people with no interest in classical music know about Joshua Bell, that guy who made waves by busking in the Washington D.C. subway a few years back.

Joshua Bell. Image courtesy artist.

Now the award-winning violinist, age 41, who has made more than 30 albums and played at concert halls the world over, has a new venue: his house. He took the time to chat with me about a week ago, a few days before he played on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. We talked about home, friends, and his new album.

Laurie: Your new album is called Joshua Bell At Home With Friends, and it features Sting; Chris Botti; Edgar Meyer; Chris Thile; Josh Groban; Carel Kraayenhof; the band Tiempo Libre; Kristin Chenowith; Sam Bush; Mike Marshall; Frankie Moreno; Nathan Gunn; Regina Spektor; Dave Grusin; Anoushka Shankar and Marvin Hamlisch – all playing the kinds of things you might play at a home jam session. So tell me more about this concept of playing friends; I didn't know you liked to have salons in your house....

Joshua: I'm trying to take it to another level. I've always had people come over and play: it's sort of casual, everyone brings their instruments and they get up and play, and people sit around. It's either chamber music, or a singer will get up and sing. People love listening to music in that way. So when I built my new place, which I spent the last four years rebuilding in Manhattan, part of the idea was to make a mini-concert space in my house. It's on the top floors, and I've tried to keep it very open, and I have a theater curtain that gives it a dramatic effect.

I only recently moved in. So I've had a couple of evenings so far, like this, but I'm hoping to take it to another level, so it becomes a regular event, either for charity, or for fun.

Laurie: You don't have the neighbors banging down your doors or anything.

Joshua: No. (laughing) I'm on the top floor of this building, and the first thing I did was to install a foot of soundproofing on the bottom floor, so I don't have that problem.

Laurie: I think the home concert is what music was meant to be, in a way.

Joshua: Certainly a lot of the great chamber music was written for that sort of (venue). I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. They've gone to hear me play at Carnegie Hall, but whenever they come to the house -- and sit right amongst us when we're playing -- they always say it's a whole different experience.

Laurie: If these are your friends on this album, you have some really fun friends...What was it like to work with, say, Sting? That idea makes me all starstruck. How did that come about?

Joshua: We had never played together, but we had done a concert where he was narrating the letters of Schumann and I was playing...

Laurie: Oh, he recently put that out on DVD.

Joshua: I wasn't on that recording, but we did some performances, and that's where I got to meet him and know him. I listened to very few rock bands as a kid in the '80s -- Genesis was one of my big ones I really liked, and The Police was another. I knew that (Sting) had an interest in the classical sensibility, in the way he approached things. So I just asked him if he would be on this album. When I started putting this together, I thought that would be cool, and he said yes. So we had to figure out what we would do, I thought about doing one of his rock songs, trying to figure out a way to make it work, and then in the end I thought it made most sense to do one of his (John) Dowland songs which he recorded already and to try to arrange one for violin.

I was impressed, working with him. He's very professional, he sings in tune...(he laughs). He really takes care.

Laurie: On the younger side of things, I see you have (mandolinist) Chris Thile in there.

Joshua: One of my oldest friendships on the album is (bassist) Edgar Meyer. We did an album 10 years ago called Short Trip Home, and this was one of the greatest experiences of my musical life – touring with him and Mike Marshall and Sam Bush. Edgar wrote all the music, and we toured around in a bus – like a rock band bus – and we played on the Grammys and did all sorts of fun stuff. So this album was also a chance to put that group, the four of us, back together, for one of the songs.

But Edgar has been telling me for the last couple years about this phenom, Chris Thile. I've gone and heard him play, and he's amazing. So Edgar wrote a song for him, and me.

Laurie: Tell me about your other friends on this album.

Joshua: Another connection that goes very far back is Chris Botti, the trumpet player, whom I went to school with at Indiana University. I've known him for 25 years, and we always wanted to do something together, but never had the chance. So here was the chance to do something, so we did a track (Gershwin's “I Loves You Porgy"). Kristen Chenoweth, the amazingly talented Broadway singer and also ex-girlfriend of mine from many years ago, she does this version of My Funny Valentine, which we had done for a Rogers and Hart special many years ago, and so this was another place to put that piece.

At the very last second, as we were going to press almost, I heard that Regina Spektor was interested in the idea of being on the album. She's a wonderful folk singer who's really hot right now. So I quickly listened to some of her music and I arranged a song called Left Hand Song, and figured out a way to make it a duet. That one was really a challenge, but in the end it was one of my favorites.

Laurie: So you did much of the arranging?

Joshua: Yes, for certain things. For some I hired an arranger to help do the dirty work, then of course I always tailor it. But the ones I really did myself where the Regina Spektor track, with her, of course, and the Eleanor Rigby track, with Frankie Moreno.

Laurie: Now, this is all a little different than recording the Sibelius Concerto or something, does it brings a different energy to your playing, to work with all these people?

Joshua: Actually I find it a lot easier, only because the songs are short. One of the hardest things about doing the Sibelius Concerto is just the sheer length, and keeping the emotional intensity up when you're repeating. In a concert, it's fine because you give everything in one performance, but in recording I find it's very difficult to find the right way to record it. It's a huge, monumental work.

But I love this, because we'll have a whole day set aside for one song, and there's no problem in repeating a song that's three minutes long, over and over again.

Logistically, it was hard to get it all together, with so many different people and different schedules. The whole thing was all put together in six months, so it was a logical nightmare, but it did work.

Laurie: I think it would be neat to mesh with these people who have such different approaches.

Joshua: It's great, you really get inside these different worlds. I just loved playing with Tiempo Libre; I've always loved Latin music, and Jorge, the pianist, is my manager's husband. So for years I've gone to his concerts. He wrote this piece (“Para Tì") on the album, which we (played) on Conan.

So you just learn a lot from these people who approach music in a different way. You always come away feeling like you've learned something.

Laurie: I've listened to the recording, and I have to say that the thing I enjoyed the most was your duet with the sitar player Anoushka Shankar. This is Ravi Shankar's daughter, right?

Joshua: Yes, Anoushka Shankar is Ravi's daughter. She's studied with him and followed in his footsteps. His other daughter is Nora Jones, they're half-sisters. I've known Anoushka for many years, as friends, and I've gone to her concerts. We'd always talked about the possibility of doing something together, then a few years ago we were at the same festival, the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, where I go every summer. We did a piece that Ravi wrote for Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, many years ago -- they did an album called East Meets West, and they did this piece. So we did that together.

Then Ravi wrote us a new piece, (“Variant Moods"), that we have on the album. We played it a few years ago, and so when I was doing this album, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to finally put it somewhere, since a whole album of (this music) is unrealistic for both of us. We're old friends, as the name of the album suggests. I like the music a lot, and it was so great to work with Ravi in San Diego, where they have a house. I went out there, and he coached us together. He's a great man.

Laurie: Had he heard you play together before he wrote it?

Joshua: No, he had listened to me play, but he had never heard us play together before he wrote the piece.

Laurie: I thought it really suited the sound of your violin. It was really interesting, sonically, I thought.

There's also a duet with Rachmaninoff in there – now how is that possible?

Joshua: It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, the track that I did with Rachmaninoff. I grew up listening to the Kreisler-Rachmaninoff recording of the Grieg. Just around the time when I was making this album, I'd heard about this technology where they extracted just the piano part from this old recording. So I thought it would be funny, as a joke – a semi-joke – to try this duet with Rachmaninoff playing. The amazing thing is, it sounds like he's in the room.

Laurie: Did it change the way you played it?

Joshua: Oh, certainly. I couldn't make him change, so it was a challenge to make it feel natural and be my way of playing. Surprisingly, there's a lot of room for nuance – a lot of the rubato is between the beats anyway. I don't feel like I had to copy Kreisler, for instance.

Laurie: What a challenge. That's the kind of thing you would do in your living room, too, play along with an old recording!

Joshua: (laughing)Well, I'm hoping to get one of those pianos that I can load Rachmaninoff, so that at one of my events I can do that.


October 7, 2009 at 09:19 PM ·

Laurie, thanks for yet another fascinating interview.

The concept of the house concert is intriguing.  If only I were a virtuoso and wealthy....

I like the current trend of combining classical music with other genres and other cultures' music.  It's probably due to current cultural and financial issues.  People who would never think of going to a concert of classical music might be enticed by the inclusion of something different that they are more comfortable with.  I hope this is more than a passing fad because I love it.

I'm familiar with a few of the artists on this recording, and I thoroughly enjoy and admire them.  I still have my old vinyl album "East Meets West" by Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar.  I'm so glad that the tradition is being carried on by Anoushka Shankar and Joshua Bell.  I heard Ravi Shankar play live in concert once at a free concert sponsored by my college.  He not only played but also taught us about Indian classical music.  I heard him in concert with Anoushkar Sitar a few years.  He is in his 80s, in frail health, and played slow passages of songs.  The pyrotechnics came fron his daughter Anoushka, who was fabulous.  Chris Thile is a star in his own genre of music, and I'm glad that he is experimenting with others now.  I love Sting.  He has such a wide variety of styles, and he plays them all so well.  I especially like his Mo Ghile Moar, a Scottish traditional song, on one of the Chieftains' albums and his Dowland album, in which he played a very complex lute which he designed himself and sang early music beautifully.

I am looking forward to hearing the new music played by a combination of stars from different musical backgrounds.  There are so many possibilities.  Thanks for telling us about some of them.







October 7, 2009 at 10:37 PM ·



October 7, 2009 at 11:06 PM ·

 The Rachmaninov idea is really neat!  Today's technology is remarkable.

October 13, 2009 at 03:10 AM ·

Man, this is always happening to me.  At first, I had a huge crush on Johnny Depp, but then I found he was over 40! And then I had this huge crush on Bae Yong Joon, a Korean actor.  OMG, so cute!!!!!!!!! And then I found out he's close to 40!  And then I had this awesome crush on a guy named Joshua Bell, and well, you know the rest.  Man, why can't all the good looking guys be younger?!

Not that 40 isn't young... 

October 13, 2009 at 03:13 AM ·

Great interview, btw...

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