Photo by Eric Kabik
It’s been said that Joshua Bell makes classical music sexy. He thrills audiences with his virtuosity and electric stage presence, and his Grammy awards, TV and film performances have brought him widespread name recognition. Bell joins the Richmond Symphony on Sept. 20 for its first concert of the 2014-2015 season, after a hectic summer in which he played at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at Central Park in New York City, his home base, and then at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the Royal Albert Hall in London.
RM: You last played with the Richmond Symphony in 1989. Does anything stick out in your mind about those concerts?
Bell: It’s hard for me to remember 25 years ago, but I do enjoy coming to orchestras like Richmond. It’s a different experience than playing with the big five orchestras where they play so many concerts and get so many big soloists every week, and the audiences in New York have a million things they can go to every night. There’s something about playing in a town like Richmond and with an orchestra of a slightly smaller size that in a way can be a nicer experience for me. You feel appreciated and you can work on the music in a different way.
RM: Do you feel like you’re much different as a musician now than you would have been 25 years ago?
Bell: Yeah, for sure. That’s probably around the time I recorded the piece I’m playing there, the Bruch Violin Concerto, for the first time. Now it’ll be a completely different approach. I’ve lived with the piece and I feel like a different kind of musician.
RM: Are there specific ways that you feel you’re different?
Bell: I’ve had so much more experience, and I’ve been directing and conducting as well, so it gives me a broader perspective on everything. When I was younger, everything I did was more instinctual, which is not a bad thing, necessarily, but I feel like I just have a broader understanding of music and more clear ideas of what I want to do with the music. And also, my Stradivarius violin, the one I have now, is a greater instrument than I had then, and that pushes me and inspires me to have a different sound. My sound has changed a lot.
RM: How does playing with the Stradivarius affect your voice as a musician?
Bell: If you wake up one morning and suddenly find out they’ve put Pavarotti’s voice in your voicebox, I think it’s going to affect the way you sing in the shower. It completely opens up different worlds, how you can think about music. It opens up ways of playing. You have more sound colors to choose from. It’s not necessarily easier to play, but if you figure out how to use it, you have more possibilities.
RM: Why did you choose the Bruch concerto for this concert?
Bell: It’s one of the great pieces — one of the big five violin concertos. It’s very popular, it’s very accessible. It’s great for an opening night — it’s very festive. It ends just making you feel very good. There are other types of pieces that may be equally profound that might explore different things emotionally, but may not be appropriate for this sort of occasion.
RM: A lot of people here have read the Washington Post article about you playing “incognito” in a Metro stop in 2007. Could you talk about the contrast between concert goers’ enthusiasm and the relative lack of interest from commuters?
Bell: It just showed that classical music needs an environment that’s conducive to listening. There’s nothing wrong with it or shameful about people not stopping, necessarily. It made people think about what they do notice and how they listen to music, and so for that, it was a fun thing to be a part of.
RM: Do you ever think about that when you pass someone who is playing on the street?
Bell: I certainly think about it, and I probably give more often than I would’ve before, partially because I know what it’s like and partially because I’m worried that if the musician happens to recognize me, shame on me for being the one not to give.
RM: How do you connect with audiences?
Bell: It’s hard for me to answer that, but I think when I perform, I really enjoy it. I really get immersed in it. For me, the composer’s the star — Beethoven, Brahms — those are the guys who really did something great. But you need someone to bring it to life. I think people respond to the way I get caught up in the music and my enthusiasm for the music. When it’s successful it’s because they come away thinking, “Wow, that Brahms concerto or Bruch concerto, what an amazing masterpiece.” That’s my goal. I feel lucky to have a lot of great opportunities to perform and see a lot of kids at the concerts, and I love to meet them.
RM: You started playing at an early age. What’s the best way to motivate a child to practice?
Bell: Music brings together all kinds of things, from math to learning Italian to playing together with other kids. There’s so much fun to be had with music that it has to be brought to them in that way and not as eating your vegetables.