A revealing interview with violinist Joshua Bell

Saturday, 21 January 2012 13:16

bellJoshua012112_optThe musician talks about Meryl Streep, rudeness on the Internet, and that Famous Subway Concert


Part of this article appeared in The Jewish Standard of Teaneck.

In some ways, the 44-year-old violinist Joshua Bell seems to be a reincarnation of 19th century pianist Franz Liszt. Not just a superb musician, but colorful and glamorous to boot. A showman.

What Bell doesn’t seem to be is another Jascha Heifitz – austere, cold, and remote. Heifetz tried to be perfectly immobile while he played; Bell moves around a lot. And can you imagine the haughty Heifetz donning a baseball cap and playing for passersby in a subway station in Washington, D.C., just for the fun of it?

Bell happens to be an Americanized version of a concert violinist: down to earth and unpretentious. He’s appeared on “Sesame Street” and on nighttime TV shows, performed with Sting, and furnished the soundtrack for “The Red Violin” and other films. Of course, he’s also won a Grammy -- and the composer of the music for “Red Violin,” John Corigliano, in accepting an Academy Award, mentioned that Bell “plays like a god.” Bell has also made 26 albums, the latest of which, with pianist Jeremy Denk, is called “French Impressions.”

It doesn’t hurt Bell’s popular appeal that he is also intelligent and well-spoken, modest and courteous. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and handsome -- looking sort of like actor Tom Cruise.

The press doesn’t know what to make of him. They mention his Beatle-like haircut, his Zorro-like clothing (black, informal). And then there was his astonishing subway concert one morning five years ago in Washington, D.C. Exactly 1,097 people walked past him as he was playing, and only three stopped to listen. And only one of those three actually recognized him. (She gave him $20.) During his entire 45-minute performance, he collected only $52.17 (including the $20).

Bell, who will be performing Sunday at 3 P.M. at bergenPAC in Englewood (tickets: 201-816-8160; or www.bergenPAC.org), was born in Indianapolis, and at age 4 took up the violin. At 14 he was a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti. Since then, he’s given concerts all over the world. He lives in New York City, in Gramercy Park, a privately owned park where a host of other celebrities, including John Barrymore, once lived or still live.

These days Bell is so busy that one of his assistants gave this reporter only 15 minutes on the phone to interview him….

Q. That subway concert you gave five years ago – were you disillusioned? Because so few people stopped to listen to you?

Bell: Naw. I think a lot of people who read the article were up in arms, but everything played out pretty much as I expected. It was certainly not fun to play to an audience that’s not a captive audience. It just re-confirmed my notion that the audience has a key role in music-making, that you need an attentive audience and an atmosphere that allows you to do what you do. Classical music can’t be appreciated unless you have full attention, it requires too much of the brain. That’s why we love it. As a listener, it requires active thinking. So, if you’re rushing to work, there’s none of that process happening. So the experiment said a lot of things – about how we’re all in a little bit of a rush, we’re all in our virtual world with our headphones and our iPhones and not always paying attention to what’s around us. I did it for fun, and I didn’t think that five years later I would still be talking about it.

Q. Might you ever do it again?

Bell: No. I’m already a little tired of being “the guy from the subway.” I think I’ve milked that story enough.

Q. Here’s a tough question: How do great violinists differ from good violinists?

Bell: Well…there’s something called the X factor. A great musician has a quality that’s sometimes hard to define — not just a very good student who can play all the notes. I think someone who’s a great artist has a way of drawing you into their musical story in a way that transcends their instrument – and you stop thinking about the instrument itself, being drawn into the world of the composer. And not that many people really do that. It’s the difference between a great actor like Meryl Streep, and a good actor. There are only a few of them. With Meryl Streep, you completely forget that she’s acting. You just totally believe her…. It is a hard question.

Q. Aren’t great musicians also distinctive? Sometimes I hear a soprano who sounds like so many other sopranos. But a great soprano…

Bell: Singers are almost another breed of their own. There’s only one Pavarotti. They have this incredible instrument that’s so distinctive.

A great violinist, I think -- he or she also owns the piece. It’s having the confidence to believe completely in every note you’re playing.

When I listen to a great pianist or violinist, every single note is going somewhere or is coming from somewhere and has meaning. With a good violinist, it alternates between technical things and musical things. With a great violinist, technique and the music are combined. There’s no separation between the two, and every note has some sort of intent. And I think that’s also quite rare. I’m not talking about myself here. I’m not putting myself in one camp or another.

Q. I just read a biography of the violinist Michael Rabin –

Bell: Oh, yeah,

Q. -- who was clearly a one-dimensional person. And I was interested to learn that your violin teacher, Josef Gingold, wanted your parents’ assurance that they intended you to be a well-rounded person….

Bell: Where did you read that?

Q. In a biography of you – in Wikipedia. [“…Bell's parents assured Gingold that they were not interested in pushing their son in the study of the violin but simply wanted him to have the best teacher for his abilities. Satisfied that the boy was living a normal life, Gingold took Bell on as his student.”—Wikipedia.]

Bell: Really? My parents assured my teacher that? My teacher may have heard stories of parents pushing their kids. It’s a very difficult role for parents of a prodigy. You need pushy parents in a way, but it can cause a lot of stress in a child. My parents were not musicians. My father was a psychologist. So they probably told him they wanted me to be a normal kid. Which I think for the most part they tried to do. There were sports and school and a lot of other things outside of music. And I’m grateful for that.

Q. I understand that you were a very good tennis player.

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.]

Q.Have you ever performed in Israel?

Bell: Many times! Many times! My grandfather, my mother’s father, was born in Israel before it was Israel, and his father was one of the early pioneers in Israel.

And I have family there. My violin is also very connected to Israel. [His violin, the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius, was owned by Bronislaw Huberman, 1882-1947.] Huberman founded the Israeli Philharmonic. I’m very proud, when I do go to Israel, to say that I play on the Huberman violin…. I get extra points.

Q. Now, once Jews like Heifetz dominated the ranks of famous violin players. Menuhin, Milstein, Stern, Zuckerman, Rabin. What has changed?

Bell: Well, it’s been part of Jewish culture. As a young Jewish kid, you look at the role models. There was never a famous black golf player until Tiger Woods. And now I’m sure there’s a whole new generation of African-American golfers because they have Tiger Woods to look up to. When you’re a kid looking up to Heifetz and Milstein, that’s something that you can aspire to. So that sort of perpetuated itself.

And then you need the discipline of a strong parent, the Jewish mother. And then there’s the work ethic in the Asia community. A lot of it is the work ethic, the parents passing it on to the child.

And it’s just in the culture. The violin has been associated with the Jewish culture for a long time.

Q. Thank you for a very good interview.