Violinist Joshua Bell double-tasks. It’s the only way he can fit his multitude of global engagements into the 24-hour day. As he travels by car from Manhattan to the Bronx, he tucks in two telephone interviews while someone else drives.
On the day we spoke, Bell — along with his 1713 Stradivarius violin, the Gibson Ex Hubermann, valued at $4 million — is on his way from Manhattan to P.S. 68 in the Bronx, where he will work with third to fifth graders in the Education Through Music (ETM) program, designed for children in inner-city schools. Bell habitually takes time out from his international performing career for causes he supports. A member of ETM’s advisory committee, he says, “I believe in the power of music to help all children do better in school.”
Founded in 1991, the ETM program lends a violin to every participant, regardless of talent or prior training. “Formerly, they had no music program at all,” Bell says. “Most of the children can’t afford to own a violin. I play for them. They ask me questions like what I’m thinking while I’m playing, and I ask them to use their imagination. It’s a direct connection. They’ve never seen a Strad before. They are shocked when they learn that my instrument is 300 years old, that it was made before George Washington was born, and that it’s worth millions of dollars. They’ve never seen someone play fast, difficult repertoire up close. They don’t go to concerts.”
Bell grew up taking musical skills for granted. As a child of two psychologists in Indiana, he heard his mother play piano and heard his father play violin and sing. A middle child, he was bracketed by sisters who played cello and piano. “There was a lot of chamber music at home,” he says, “especially when the cousins came over.”
Bell, now 39, unleashes both his musical leadership and his virtuoso violin skills with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a conductorless ensemble, on Thursday, March 29, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. Formed in 1958 by Neville Marriner, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields takes its name from the London church where it often performs. In addition to calling on Marriner and its director, Kenneth Sillito, the small orchestra draws on Bell and a handful of other distinguished musicians as guest leaders.
In the New Brunswick concert Bell directs the ensemble from the concertmaster’s seat and, in addition, solos in Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The program also includes Johannes Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 111, in an arrangement for orchestra by Christian Woehr.
The Vivaldi composition consists of four violin concertos, each with three movements. The piece was originally written to accompany 12 sonnets that describe the sights of the seasons. The music mimics the pictures evoked by the poems.
“The Brahms Quintet is an orchestral type of piece,” Bell says. “It works well when it’s orchestrated. Orchestration gives it a power that is really special. And audiences have a chance to hear something normally heard only at a small chamber music concert.”
Bell’s direction differs for the two pieces. “In the Vivaldi I have the lead voice,” he says, “though there’s plenty of back and forth. In the Brahms I am part of the group. That takes more leadership than the Vivaldi does.”
Bell calls his role at the State Theater concert “play” conducting.” “Play conducting is in between playing and conducting,” he explains. “I always have the violin in my hands. I do some directing while I’m playing, and sometimes I put the violin down. But I have yet to get up in front of an orchestra without the instrument. I’ve been asked, but I have not yet said yes to conducting with a baton. I feel very comfortable showing musically what I want to show with my violin under my chin. I’ll always be a violinist.
“When there’s no conductor, an orchestra plays as if it was chamber music. For an audience that’s an even more visceral experience than when an orchestra has a conductor. St. Martin in the Fields has 20 musicians. Sometimes in an orchestra with 90 musicians the players in the back don’t feel very involved. I see it all the time. I play with big orchestras and small ones. In a big orchestra you can become a career musician, play for 50 years, and get complacent. In a young chamber orchestra like this, if one person makes a mistake everybody feels it; everybody believes that what they do makes a difference. In a big orchestra there’s not the same feeling of responsibility.”
Bell and the Academy of St. Martin give eight concerts in nine days on the west coast before flying east for another batch of performances. The five concerts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York occur on successive days and culminate with a Carnegie Hall appearance on April 1. Bell gives about 120 concerts a year. “It’s the maximum that I can handle,” he says. “I’m trying to cut back.”
Bell is on the road more than 200 days a year, he told the UK’s Gramophone magazine, “and has become addicted to the excitement of new destinations, new people, new kinds of foods, new concert halls, and new collaborations.”
To keep his concerts interesting for himself, Bell varies the repertoire. “I don’t play the same piece all year long,” he says. “I do recitals, participate in chamber orchestras, play concertos with big orchestras, and play cross-over concerts. The music-making skills are the same. You’re figuring out how to tell the story. It’s not like having to wear a different hat.”
Still, there are demands that challenge the talented Bell. “It takes a certain amount of discipline to perform,” he says. “When you play the Tchaikovsky Concerto for the 1000th time, you have to go back and look at it in a fresh way. It’s easy to get lazy.”
Bell last appeared in the Princeton area in early February, giving a solo recital at McCarter with pianist Jeremy Denk for a full house. Not even standing-room spots remained unsold. In pieces by Schumann, Beethoven, Corigliano, and others Bell used his violin to talk to the audience with fervid eloquence. Close your eyes, and you have the impression that the warm sound that he draws from the instrument is made with an infinitely long bow. The changes of direction are inaudible. Selections from Bell’s “The Voice of the Violin,” released in September by Sony Classical, concluded the program.
On the album Bell lets his violin wordlessly sing music that originated with the human voice. “We want this to serve as a gateway to classical music for a new generation,” he says. The collection of 15 pieces, none longer than six minutes, is uniformly sweet. The sound has the lush, seamless quality of the arch-typical violin. On this recording, Bell’s instrument sings not only soprano, but also baritone. Part of the magic of the recording is Bell’s ability to lean on important notes as if he were stressing something intimate in a private conversation. Instrumental backup comes from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Michael Stern. The arrangements are by J. A. C. Redford. In two pieces human voices take part. Schubert’s “Ave Maria” incorporates a female chorus so soft that listeners cannot be sure whether they’re hearing vocals or just imagining them. The final selection, Richard Strauss’ “Morgen,” for voice and violin, in which soprano Anna Netrebko joins Bell, is the only piece presented in its original form. Bell calls it “a final homage to the voice.”
“Voice of the Violin” is a sequel to “Romance of the Violin,” Bell’s 2003 collection of non-violin melodies, which had a long run on Billboard’s top 10 lists. “I was so happy with that success, because I’m trying to reach the core classical audience and the fringe audience — the ones who enjoy listening but don’t know what to buy and need a way in.”
Bell attracted national attention 25 years ago when he made his orchestral debut at age 14 with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1989 he earned an Artist Diploma from the Indiana University School of Music. He made his first recording at age 18. He is a Grammy award winner and is frequently nominated for the award. He has received the Avery Fischer Career Grant. He serves as artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, “play” conducting with them. In January he was chosen as one of 250 young global leaders for 2007 by the World Economic Forum, joining a group that includes the founders of Google.
Sports have been a long-term component of Bell’s life. He won the Indiana State Junior Tennis Championship in the 9 and 10-year-olds age group. However, his chief fitness activity these days is playing violin. “A concert is quite draining,” he says. “It’s hard to go to the gym on the day of concert. You have to be in shape to perform.” Bell’s movement as a performer exemplifies the tightly-coiled lightness of a master athlete.
Bell does not waste a neuron on the dangers of tennis or golf. Caution is not his thing. He has said that he likes to take risks in performance. He also takes risks in life (he bought his first Porsche at age 19 in Germany), and just plain deals with the consequences. For example, he gives the following account: “The day of my first solo recital I was tossing around a boomerang which whirled back and sliced my chin open. Two inches to the left and I couldn’t have held my violin. But I played, wounded.” Also, just before a performance with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony in Idaho, he went paragliding.
The overlap between music and sports gives Bell a chance to examine an arena for double-tasking different from being interviewed while driving. Is it possible that understanding the flow, continuity, coordination, and shape of movement on the tennis court is a substitute for practicing an instrument? Bell is skeptical about double-tasking with tennis, but he sees the potential of golf. “There is a carryover between sport and practicing,” he says. “I’ve been studying my golf swing. It helps me understand ways of handling the bow.”
Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Thursday, March 29, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Brahm’s “String Quintet in G.” Joshua Bell, violin virtuoso, performs as guest director and soloist with the chamber orchestra. $60 to $90. 732-246-7469.