Interview with Violinist Joshua Bell

October 25, 2019, 12:49 PM · Just a few days after his wedding to opera singer Larisa Martinez earlier this month, Joshua Bell was standing outside his sons' school in New York, waiting to pick them up, while also conducting a little phone interview about his upcoming recital tour to California.

Bell is a busy guy, these days.

Joshua Bell
Violinist Joshua Bell. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

We talked not just about the upcoming recital tour with pianist Alessio Bax (including performances in Los Angeles, Stanford, Davis and Oxnard), but also about the recording industry and his new single for Amazon Music, about education and teaching, about being a father, about cell phones and technology and more.

The upcoming recital program includes repertoire that speaks to Bell's musical roots: César Franck's Sonata in A major; Ysaÿe's "Ballade" (Sonata No. 3); Bach's Sonata No. 4 in C minor for violin and keyboard, and Schubert's Rondo in B minor.

"The Franck Sonata was written for Ysaÿe, for his wedding present - speaking of weddings!" said Bell. One could say Eugène Ysaÿe is a kind of musical grandfather on Bell's musical family tree -- Bell's teacher Josef Gingold was a student of Ysaÿe's. And it's certainly not the first time Bell has visited the sonata; among other things Bell's French Impressions recording of 2012 includes the Franck Sonata, with pianist Jeremy Denk.

"I played the Franck with Jeremy last - we recorded it; and now I'll do it with Alessio. It will be a new experience," Bell said. "It's always personal, every time you start with someone new, it introduces new thoughts, new arguments. That's the fun part of repeating pieces and doing them with new pianists."

"Alessio Bax is a wonderful pianist, we met in about 2006 at Verbier Music Festival in Switzerland," Bell said. "At these music festivals they throw together people who have never played together, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't, that's the festival atmosphere. But we became friends there. He lives in New York but is from Italy. He's also a fun companion to travel with. He happens to enjoy food as much as I do, he's a gourmand, I guess you might say, and an amazing chef. He often has house parties in New York where he cooks, and he's one of the best amateur chefs I know. So when we're traveling together it's always fun to find restaurants."

Bax also is a simpatico musical partner for Bell. "You want to play with people who tend to think in similar ways; although I wouldn't want to play with someone who thinks exactly like me and agrees to every single thing I do and say! The fun is in the give-and-take," Bell said. "Also, when you have to explain your view, you already define your music better. That's why they say, 'When you teach, you learn.' It's not necessarily that your students are teaching you, it's that you're also teaching yourself. When you have to explain something to a student, you define what you may have been doing innately, and you're defining it in a better way. It's the same thing with discussions with your musical partner."

There is no partner in Ysaÿe's "Ballade," the third of his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, inspired by Bach's solo works. This is another work that connects Bell with his early mentor, Gingold.

"Not only was Ysaÿe Gingold's teacher, but Gingold himself premiered the 'Ballade,'" Bell said. "Ysaÿe wrote the Ballade - and all the sonatas - when he was past his performance prime. So Ysaÿe himself never performed the 'Ballade' in public, as far as I know. Gingold was actually the first to do it, apparently. He loved the piece, and I learned it with him when I was about 13 years old."

Gingold liked to tell a funny story about performing the 'Ballade' at an event in honor of Ysaÿe, with Ysaÿe present.

"Gingold was warming up backstage, about to play, and he suddenly had a mental block and could not remember how the piece started," Bell said. "He knew the first note, but then couldn't figure out the chords and where they went - it kind of morphs into a kind of whole-tone scale, but he had one of these mental lapses. He started panicking, and he called Ysaÿe out from where he was socializing at the pre-concert cocktail hour and said, 'Excuse me maestro, I'm having a problem...' Ysaÿe was sort of annoyed and said, 'Come here.' They went into a back room, Ysaÿe picked up the violin and - he couldn't remember it either! The two of them were trying to figure out how it went, then finally it came to him and he remembered. But it was this funny moment where neither one of them could remember exactly, and he'd forgotten to bring the music with him!"

How did Gingold himself play the piece? "Most of what I remember is his vibrato and his expression," Bell said. When Gingold would slide from one note down to another, it never sounded schmaltzy. "It was always this kind of vocal glissandi, going from one note to another," Bell said. "He described Ysaÿe as doing those kinds of slides, that sort of crying with the left hand, when you express from one note to another."

Technically speaking, the piece has a lot of string crossings, going from the bottom string to the top string back and forth. "Ysaÿe had some exercises for this, where the right hand would move in a very smooth way and not up and down as you're changing strings, with one up-and-down motion. Gingold had some exercises that he gave to his students to practice just that, going from one string to another in a way where the right hand looks beautiful, without any extraneous movement. I remember that, as a kid, and that could be applied in various places in the sonata."

"It's an incredible piece; it's a sonata but it's in one sort of movement. It has so many amazing harmonies and colors," Bell said. "I think the piece is sometimes approached as a kind of a showpiece -- often I feel it's played too fast, and the nuance and fantasy and colors can be missed. But I just love it, and every couple of years I put it on the program again because it's one of those great solo violin pieces."

As always, Bell has kept busy with other projects besides the solo touring -- for example, those appearances on the hit Amazon show, Mozart in the Jungle.

"It's not the kind of thing a classical violinist gets to do that often, so it was a lot of fun," Bell said. It also had the nice side-effect of reaching people that may have never heard of Bell or gone to a classical music concert before. "I've had people come to my concerts and say, 'I don't normally go to concerts, but I saw you on Mozart in the Jungle and saw you were playing nearby...'"

Bell doesn't resist technology - he embraces it as a way to reach new audiences.

"The whole recording industry is changing so much, people are streaming now. Instead of putting in CDs they're asking Alexa for pieces, that's kind of the new way we're listening to music," Bell said. When offered the chance to produce an Amazon Original, he jumped at the chance. "I took the opportunity to use the budget they gave me to get a little orchestra together and record a new arrangement that I made of Chopin’s E-flat Nocturne. They wanted a piece that was accessible to a general public and popular and beautiful, so I've always wanted to explore more the music of Chopin. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for piano, but in the past I've arranged a Chopin Nocturne. As it turns out, according to Amazon, that was my number one download. People connect with Chopin, as do I -- it's the most beautiful music. So I chose another Nocturne, the E-flat major Nocturne, a very popular one, and I arranged it for violin and orchestra. So that's my latest single for Amazon."

Bell also does his share of livestream concerts, "I've even done livestream concerts from my home in New York," Bell said. "I think that's certainly going to be the future consumption of music." And remember how much he's always enjoyed video games? "I also did a demo for Sony Playstation for their VR (virtual reality)," he said. "So I'm very interested in technology and seeing where it goes. I think it's good for music."

Even cell phones at concerts? He may draw the line there.

"Certainly, everyone having phones and a video camera at all times - this definitely affects things, sometimes negatively," Bell said. For example, at the New York Philharmonic Gala earlier this season, "there was a horrendous phone going off during the middle of Lang Lang's Beethoven Piano Concerto, in the slow movement. Then the same ringer went off seconds later, after five rings, it went off just kind of ruined the moment." People also can get so caught up in trying to capture things on their phone that they fail to live in the moment and enjoy the present. "So that's one of the negative things about technology. But for the most part it's giving music a bigger access, I'm a firm believer in technology. There are a lot of places where technology can help us in our industry. It's exciting to see where it will go."

Something he's not really doing at the moment is teaching, but he hopes to do more of it in the future. "I decided to take a little break from it," Bell said. "I was trying to do so many things, and I have my own kids that I'm having a hard time getting to see. It's tough because I really love teaching. Teaching at Indiana was something I was trying to do, but after coming home from tour, after being gone for three weeks and having four days off, it's so hard to fit it in. So I decided I'm just going to take a little bit of time. I feel like I'm in my prime now still, physically playing-wise. Maybe as things taper off later in my career, maybe I'll assume more the role of teaching. But I do like to connect with kids, if I'm on the road, I like to invite them to come to rehearsals and tell the orchestras I'm always open to having young people come to rehearsals so we can have a Q-and-A afterwards and discuss music. That sort of thing I do on the road whenever I can."

When it comes to his own kids, "fatherhood has been a huge enhancement of my life," Bell said. "I have three boys: twins, and then an older son, Josef (named after Josef Gingold)."

"Josef plays cello and then the twins play piano and violin." Bell does not teach them, but "I enjoy practicing with them whenever I can - music is a nice way to bond with them. I don't expect them to necessarily want to become musicians, if they do fine, but it's vital for me to have music in their lives, that was a must."

"When I'm home I take them to school and pick them up every day," Bell said. "It's the best thing I ever did, to have kids. It grounds you, it affects you in so many ways."

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October 25, 2019 at 08:06 PM · A wonderful, informative interview; I enjoyed reading it.

October 26, 2019 at 03:32 AM · Such a wonderful gifted man...Loved the interview...

October 26, 2019 at 09:07 AM · I enjoyed reading, great information he has shared. My daughter learning violin will be her dream to reach where he has. All the best thanks to always mentor young people coming behind you

October 26, 2019 at 09:51 AM · Joshua Bell is a marvellous violinist. I have an interesting story to report. It takes place after a recital he gave in the Sala de Cámara in Madrid's Auditorio Nacional a few years ago. I had gone on my own, so perhaps I was listening in rather on other people's conversations. As we filed out I heard an elderly man say to his companion, 'These American violinists: they have bags of technique but no musicality!' I wish I had answered, 'I have bags of what I believe is musicality, and no technique. Would you like to hear me play the Kreutzer sonata?'

Thanks for this interesting interview!

October 26, 2019 at 12:27 PM · Richard, the "elderly man" in your story is simply a bigot. His remarks don't deserve to be mollified by humor. I wish I had been there to call him out on his sweeping ethnic generalization. Whenever one hears such a claim, all one need do is insert other nationalities or ethnicities into the sentence. Nowadays you don't get away with saying that Jewish violinists are more musical than anyone else, for example. Years ago people said such things but our collective understanding of prejudice and racism has clarified (to a degree that still bears improvement), and such claims no longer have any place in civilized public discourse.

October 26, 2019 at 03:02 PM · Paul, thanks for your thoughts and observations. I agree with your points about ethnic generalization especially - my Caribbean origin helps me see that strongly. I don't think the man was being racist, though there was cultural generalization & judgementalism in what he said, reinforced by age discrimination perhaps, though of course we never have access to what is in another person's mind. More than anything, I feel sorry for him: he failed to enjoy a wonderful concert. Warm regards from Madrid, Spain!

October 26, 2019 at 03:12 PM · Also that's a strange thing to say about Joshua. I’ve seen him play live many times over many years, and he actually stands out for being expressive and having something to say. His Bernstein Serenade was with LACO a few years ago was simply the most moving performance of that piece that I’ve heard.

October 27, 2019 at 04:09 AM · Thanks for such a personal, informative interview!

October 27, 2019 at 05:15 AM · Laurie, next time, you should ask about those string-crossing exercises! Those deserve to be passed on. :-)

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