Interview with Joshua Bell: Brahms, Cuba and Music Education

October 26, 2016, 5:37 PM · These days, Joshua Bell wears many hats: concert artist, conductor, cultural diplomat, educator. And he's keeping busy. As Music Director of the London-based Academy of St Martin in the Fields since 2011, Bell spends much of the year touring with that group, both playing and conducting. He also just released an all-Brahms album called For the Love of Brahms.

In April he traveled to Cuba as part of a U.S. government-led cultural exchange, and on Nov. 1 he will host Live from Lincoln Center: Seasons of Cuba (airing Dec. 16), which came about as a result of that trip. The next day, on Nov. 2, he will perform in a recital at Alice Tully Hall with pianist Alessio Bax.

Bell is involved with a number of political and educational initiatives: he is a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and an artist for Turnaround Arts, which helps provide arts education to low-performing elementary and middle schools.

When Bell was in Los Angeles, we talked about conducting, Brahms, his trip to Cuba and the state of music, both there and in the United States.

Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell. Photo by David Candlena.

Laurie: For the last five years, you have been doing so much conducting. What have you been enjoying about conducting, and does it change the way you feel about playing as a soloist?

Joshua: I don't yet call myself a conductor, but working with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields so much -- directing, conducting, whatever you want to call it -- and studying those scores, doing that repertoire, it certainly helps everything. When I come to the Beethoven Violin Concerto after conducting a Beethoven symphony, I feel my ears are better. When you're leading an orchestra, you have to think in even clearer terms about how you want the music to flow, architecturally. You have to explain it to the orchestra, you have to think about phrasing even more clearly in your head. In solo playing, you do that as well, but you can also be more instinctual. When I was younger I think I played more instinctually; as I've gotten older I've thought more logically about how I phrase, how I view the piece from an overall perspective. I feel like I've become a better musician because of my work with the Academy and other orchestras.

Laurie: Would you conduct Brahms symphonies, from playing?

Joshua: Actually, I'm planning on it, I have not done it yet, but that's the next one to tackle. I've done the Brahms Violin Concerto many times; I've toured with the Academy, directing and playing the Brahms, and it worked very well. And also the Brahms Double Concerto, which we just recorded. I love conducting the tuttis of the Brahms concerto. I've played the violin concerto with hundreds of conductors over the years, so it's such a pleasure, finally getting to ask for all the little details that I have always wanted. When you work with a conductor, you're always choosing your battles, and you're trying to find a way to impose what you want without being disrespectful in front of the orchestra. It's always a fine balance. But when I'm directing myself, it's very organic. It gives me the right to ask for every little thing I've always wanted in the piece, my wish list. It's a great feeling.

Laurie: What happens, then, when you go back to playing with a conductor, after you've been conducting the same piece yourself? For example, playing the Brahms Concerto with Gustavo Dudamel, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

Joshua: That's also a pleasure -- it's nice because then I can actually relax during the tuttis and catch my breath! (He laughs) I toured this year, conducting and playing Tchaikovsky, and you don't have a single second of break. Tchaikovsky is exhausting as it is; but when you can't even relax during the tuttis and you're directing, it's even more exhausting. So with a great conductor, it's a pleasure, and Dudamel is fantastic. He's very in-the-moment; I feel like we're going through the experience together and that's a really wonderful feeling. To play Disney Hall, LA Phil, it was a really nice experience.

Laurie: Since we've been talking about Brahms, tell me more about your new recording, For the Love of Brahms, with the Academy of St Martin in the Field, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk. At first, I thought this was probably a recording of all the sonatas, or the concerto, and then I realized, no! It's the Double Concerto (for violin and cello) plus that gorgeous Piano Trio in B major, Op. 8.

Joshua: It all started with the idea of recording the Brahms Double. Steven Isserlis is one of my oldest friends. We've been playing together almost 30 years, and we've been playing the Brahms Double for at least 25! I knew at some point in my life I wanted to record the Brahms Double, and I knew it would absolutely have to be with Steven because he's the one that I've played it with the most. It's not always easy to even program the Brahms Double, period, because of the logistics. But we found ourselves in a situation where we were going on tour with the Academy, playing the Brahms Double many times. So we had the orchestra I wanted, the soloist, and the opportunity to perform -- that's how it started.

Then came the question of how to fill the rest of the album. Since Steven was there with me, I wanted to find something we could do together. Instead of doing the Beethoven Triple, which could have been an option, we thought about keeping it all-Brahms. Since the Brahms Double is his last orchestral work, we thought it could be interesting to do the other side of the spectrum: the early part of his life, when he was just 21 years old and he wrote the Trio. That allowed us to bring in my other most-frequent collaborator, (pianist) Jeremy Denk.

I found that it was a nice contrast, to have the early and the late Brahms. Also, it was an opportunity to record the original version of the Trio, which Brahms wrote in 1854. Most people don't know it as well as the revised version, which he did much later in his life. This early version is drastically different and really reflects the youthful, heart-on-sleeve Brahms, who had just fallen in love with Clara Schumann. Later in life he revised it, shortened it, cut out all the extra fat, tamed it down a little bit and made it perfect -- more like the later Brahms. But there's something really wonderful about the raw, early Brahms that I think you can see in the early version of this trio.

Laurie: Is that a difficult version to find?

Joshua: It's published; Brahms did not destroy it. He must have been fond of it on some level. Steven Isserlis introduced me to it; he's often interested in playing original versions.

Laurie: On another topic, I'd like to bring us to Cuba. I understand that in April you were part of the U.S. government's first cultural exchange since the thawing of relations, and that you are doing a Live from Lincoln Center Seasons of Cuba concert on Nov. 1. I'm interested in what you found in Cuba, what was the musical scene like?

Joshua: I met a lot of interesting Cuban musicians, both popular music and also classical. The orchestra I played with, Chamber Orchestra of Havana, is a young orchestra of mostly women -- all but one were females in their 20s -- and a female conductor named Daiana García. I was really impressed with the orchestra -- very high level, very polished, energetic and joyful in their music-making. I really enjoyed it.

I also got to bond with some American musicians on the trip that I had never met before, like Dave Matthews, Usher and Smokey Robinson. We all kind of hung out together with local musicians.

One of the Cuban musicians I met was Carlos Varela, a musician who is kind of their local hero, sort of like Bob Dylan is to Americans. He's very revered, and his way of making music is poetic, very much like Bob Dylan. He's going to come as well, for Live from Lincoln Center. They're bringing the whole (Chamber Orchestra of Havana) orchestra; I don't know that they've been to the United States before. So it's exciting, to bring them here.

Laurie: Did you see any of the music schools in Cuba?

Joshua: One day I got to go to the Conservatory, and met with some string players. I also went to an elementary school, where I talked to the class, played for them and showed them the Stradivarius. Very sweet. So it was a nice exchange.

Laurie: It seems like a unique chance to see where things are at there. It sounds like they are still doing classical music.

Joshua: I knew there was classical music in Cuba, and I'd heard that they had good training there. But it exceeded my expectations. You think of Cuba as being very isolated, but when I went there, they were very aware of what's going on. All the string players came up to me and said, 'Oh, we watched your performance on Youtube..." They didn't fit the idea that they are completely isolated. But of course, in some ways their society is living in another era: their cars are all from the '50s, and there are not a lot of niceties there generally. But they seem to love music.

Laurie: It seems you are involved with a lot of educational things these days.

Joshua: The group that went down to Cuba was an organization called Turnaround Arts, which adopts schools and sends in artists, actors, musicians on a regular basis, developing relationships with the schools and the kids in the schools. I think it's a wonderful program, so I've recently joined them. They've assigned me to a school in Washington, D.C., Savoy Elementary School. I'll go there for the first time this year when there I'm doing a weeklong festival that I'm curating at the Kennedy Center in February.

I'm still involved with Education Through Music, which is expanding and doing great things, installing music programs into some really challenged inner-city schools. When I visit these schools, I always walk out feeling uplifted by these kids, who are clearly changed by having music in their lives. It's so obvious, how it changes their self-esteem, for one. They're creating something, they each are given an instrument. Their grades go up. It also affects their parents; you see the parents coming to hear their kids play and being very proud of their kids.

I think the most important thing we can do for kids is to make sure they have culture and art and music. I don't really get political, but one thing I've noticed in all the politics this season, all the debates -- I haven't heard one mention of culture. Not at all, ever. Have you? Has either candidate ever mentioned it? Any question from the audience about the place of culture in our society? Nothing. There's just very little thought about it. We need to change that.

Laurie: If it's going to be part of public education, there have to be policies about it. I guess it's up to us.

Joshua: Frankly I wish I could do more. I'm constantly biting off as much as I can chew, and every time I have a week free, something comes to fill it up. It doesn't leave me time to do as much outreach as I'd like.

But when I go out, that's always the fun part. While I was in LA, I went down to Orange County for a Q and A session with the young music students there. After concerts, I always like to meet the young kids -- and I do see a lot of young kids coming to concerts. So I'm not discouraged about the future of classical music.

Laurie: Does having your own kids change your views on this at all? (Joshua has three sons, ages nine and six-year-old twins).

Joshua: My kids all go to a school that's sort of based around music. It's a special music school, but it's a public school. I wish there were more schools like that. It's a great way to get an education -- I always say that schools should base all the other academics around music, because music can lead to everything: to language, to math -- everything has a connection to music in some way. Using that as a common thread would be a wonderful thing, but instead they often cut it entirely.

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October 27, 2016 at 06:21 PM · "He's [Carlos Varela is] very revered, and his way of making music is poetic, very much like Bob Dylan.

Maybe Varela can get the Nobel Prize for Literature next year.

October 27, 2016 at 10:41 PM · I have to say I'm intrigued, I might just go get an album of Cuban music!

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