The last time I saw Joshua Bell perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, it was downright magical - their performance together of Bernstein's "Serenade" was just riveting.
On Saturday Joshua Bell will be back with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, joined by soprano Larisa Martínez, this time for its "2023 Gala Celebration." The event, a fundraiser which also celebrates Grammy and Emmy-Winning composer and musician Danny Elfman and will include selections from his classical works such as his recent Violin Concerto "Eleven Eleven," will take place at Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
I had not interviewed Joshua since his marriage in late 2019 to Larisa, and speaking to both of them together on Monday was a delight - they even finish each other's sentences! They had not arrived yet in Los Angeles; they were speaking from their home in Westchester, the place where they spent much of lockdown and where they now still keep chickens. I started by asking them what it was like, getting married just a few months before a global pandemic.
"We got married in 2019 - before the pandemic," Larisa said. Joshua continued, "She had her Carnegie Hall debut four days after our wedding, and then I ran off on tour - so we we never really had a honeymoon at all," Joshua said. "So the pandemic gave us an opportunity to spend some time together. It turned out to be a silver lining to a difficult time.
It also provided some time for them to get their act together - literally. Their "Voice and the Violin" program, which they've been performing for several years, evolved from that time.
"We had always talked about doing something together," Larisa said, "but only vaguely," Josh continued.
"Then during the pandemic, that was just a great opportunity to develop it, find some repertoire, have some things arranged for us. So that is what became the project we call 'The Voice and Violin,' which we've taken to various places," he said. "It's a lot of fun to work together and make music together."
For the special event on Saturday, they'll perform a piece by Mendelssohn together, then Joshua will perform Bach's Concerto in A minor with LACO, and the orchestra will play works by Elfman.
"I'm always amazed about how many similarities there are between voice and violin, as I discover the violin more and more," Larisa said. "There are so many parallels.
For example, to achieve the sounds she wants, Larisa will experiment with her "resonators" - those areas of the of the vocal tract that can vibrate in harmony with the voice. Likewise, Joshua will make adjustments to the bridge or even the chin rest, to optimize the sound of the violin.
"When I talk about my violin sounding well or not sounding well, it's so similar to the things that are going on in her body, in the voice," Joshua said. "And when she talks about going to a coach, and the ways she's adjusting her voice to get different kinds of overtones, it reminds me so much of how we violinists think about using the bow, placing the bow towards the bridge, etc."
"..of course you guys don't have to breathe..." Larisa said.
"But we do!" Bell said, laughing.
These two are cute. We know what you mean, Larisa!
"Also - you guys can change your strings, I cannot," Larisa said.
"That is definitely true," Joshua said.
A violinist could even choose to simply use a different instrument, she pointed out. "I only have one set of vocal chords," Larisa said, "I have to take care of those, because they are my only ones!"
"Definitely, preparation for concerts is very different between the two of us," Joshua said. "A violinist can kind of cram the night before; you can practice five hours and work on what you need to do. With the voice, you have to avoid that and plan everything in advance. You can't rehearse on the same day as the performance the same way a violinist can..."
"You can, but you have to be so smart about it - it's tricky," Larisa said. And while a singer may not be practicing by physically singing as much, there are plenty of other considerations - "...diction, the words, the acting, ... usually I'm telling story. But you guys can play just so many more notes - it's incredible, the fireworks or you can do with the violin."
When it comes to violin-playing, "we don't have the words, but we do have articulation," Joshua said. "When you talk about diction as a violinist - we also have a kind of diction, in the way we articulate the notes. There are a lot of similarities there as well."
Back to the issue of breathing...it's an art for a singer. It's a necessity for a violinist, even if we tend to take it for granted and sometimes hold our breath. And it's even quite critical for a conductor.
"Breathing is so important in all music making, even if you're a conductor," said Joshua, who has been Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields since 2011. "How you breathe in front of the orchestra is very, very important. So working with with a singer is always enlightening."
Joshua recently returned from a tour of Germany with the Academy of St. Martin's.
"I got to direct Schumann's Second Symphony, which was one of the best orchestral experiences I've ever had," Joshua said. "It's an unbelievable piece, and I was very proud of what we did." Joshua said he is greatly enjoying leading and conducting, "and I'm moving more in that direction, where I like to come to an orchestra and play a concerto, and then in second half, conduct a symphony or something like that. I love it. It's a lot more work, but it's very, very rewarding."
When Joshua directs the Academy, he does so from the concertmaster chair - positioned slightly higher, so he can be seen.
"My stint with the Academy - which has now been officially 11 years - has been a perfect way to practice conducting," Joshua said. "I do double duty, playing and conducting. Often in rehearsals, I won't play, so I'll stand and conduct, because I can show things that I can't always show when I'm playing. That's an incredible luxury for me, to get that experience. People who want to practice conducting- they can't really do it because they don't have an instrument to practice on. For me, I've practiced in rehearsals with the Academy for years. While doing that, I've become more and more comfortable with the physical nature of conducting and figuring out what works - what I need to do and I don't need to do. That is probably the biggest thing conductors need to learn - where they're actually not needed."
"All those things I'm learning and continuing to learn - I'm feeling more and more comfortable standing up there without my violin now," Joshua said. "I'm learning more about the winds and learning more about what I want, not only from the strings, which I'm more comfortable. It's thrilling to be able to be part of these great symphonies. I've directed eight of the nine Beethoven symphonies, a couple of Mendelssohn symphonies, and now Schumann, and Brahms Fourth Symphony."
In February Joshua will perform the Barber Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, with conductor Alan Gilbert.
What is it like now, to perform with a conductor, after directing so many concerts as the soloist or concertmaster?
"In some ways it's a relief that during the tuttis, I don't have to whip around and conduct," Joshua said. "For example, when you're play-directing the Tchaikovsky concerto...that concerto already takes a huge amount of energy because it's endless violin playing, and then finally you get the break....When I'm doing it, I have to then turn around and keep going and conduct the orchestra. It does take a lot of energy."
"After doing that, and then performing with a conductor, I realize hey, I can actually just sit back during the tuttis and let him or her take over! That can be nice," he said. Of course, "it can also be frustrating because I know exactly what I want from the orchestra, and I have to choose my battles, in regards to what to ask of the conductor. So there are pluses and minuses."
"In Berlin, I'm working with a good friend, Alan Gilbert, so we have a nice working relationship," Joshua said.
This week Joshua and Larisa will play at LACO's Gala, and then on Sunday they will attend the 2023 Grammy Awards. "We're not up for anything this year," Joshua said, "but we have friends who are, and it will be fun just to tag along."
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The LACO Gala is at 5 p.m. Saturday Feb. 4 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. For more information click here.
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