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A revealing interview with violinist Joshua Bell

Bell: I was pretty good. But sometimes that’s overblown. I loved all sports – basketball, Ping Pong. I was a darned good Ping Pong player. That was something they allowed you to do at summer music camp – play Ping Pong.

Q. Jascha Heifetz played Ping Pong.

Bell: That’s true. But he was a sore loser. I heard that he lost a game at a party, so he locked his whole class out of the house.

Q. (laughter) That sounds like Heifetz.

In some ways, you’re very different from Heifitz. When he played, he tried not to move at all.

Bell: That’s true. But he was so efficient. We all revere him. Every time after I hear him, I feel that I have learned to play better. He set the bar so high. It’s not just how perfectly he played. His sound, the sizzle, was something that inspires still.

Q. Are there any major violin pieces you have never played?

Bell: There are many. That’s a wonderful thing about the violin repertoire. If I had practiced more as a teenager instead of playing video games and sports, there’d be a lot fewer pieces left to do – but there are many. Bartok, Shostakovich, many of the Romantic works that are a little more obscure. The other Bruch concerto, there are lots. So I will never get to them all. I’d nice to know that there are plenty on my list.

Q. Did you read that recent article that claimed that famous violins, like your Stradivarius, are not really all that superior?

Bell: What were the criteria?

Q. I guess it must have been as blind test.

Bell: When it comes to violins, blind tests don’t really mean anything. A great violin opens up a palette of colors and sounds that allows the violinist to make music in a more profound way. And believe me, if I could find a non-Stradivarius violin that worked as well, I would sell my Strad, pocket the money, and buy myself a block in Manhattan. It really makes a huge difference. And it’s so wonderful that there’s something like a Stradvarius violin that was made 300 years ago that’s still so far superior to anything we can find today. The reasons? Who knows. There are wonderful violin-makers today, and maybe someday they will create something magical.

Q. I don’t know whether you ever look at the Internet, but the comments from the public about music and musicians are often incredibly rude and nasty.

Bell: That’s disillusioning. I think that’s a phenomenon of the Internet and the anonymity of the Internet that people show such disrespect. To go to a Heifetz video and have people slamming him without any respect at all, and saying about young musicians, ‘Oh, this person sucks” and “You should listen to so-and-so’s performance and this is the only way to play it.” My teacher Gingold when he lived in Manhattan in the ‘20s would bribe the ushers in Carnegie Hall to stand in the back and listen to everybody concertogoer who came through. And they worshipped Heifetz and Kreisler. They didn’t sit there and say, “Heifetz played it better than Kreisler.” I really don’t think there was that frame of mind. It really bothers me. There’s room for lots of interpretations and you could at least show respect for musicians putting themselves out there. It’s easy to hide behind your computer and trash somebody. It’s not so easy to get up in front of an audience.

[To read public comments about Bell, click here.]



 

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