Voice of the Virtuoso

An Interview with Joshua Bell

by Charles Donelan

Joshua-Bell-credit-Chris-Le.jpgOn Saturday, November 4, CAMA will bring one of the year’s most highly anticipated classical concerts to the Arlington, as acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell joins the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Maestro Jonathan Nott. The program includes Henze’s Erlkönig, Schubert’s Symphony No. 6, and Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, which will feature Bell as soloist. Joshua Bell manages to combine an extraordinary range of virtues: He is considered the greatest active American violinist, he was the 2004 Billboard classical artist of the year, he has a Grammy and has been nominated for several more, and he works incredibly hard, touring and playing constantly. On top of that, he is a gracious and articulate man with a beautiful and lighthearted outlook on life. I spoke with him by phone from his Los Angeles home last week.

Hi Joshua. How are things in Los Angeles? It’s really nice to be home. I have three whole weeks in the same place and it has allowed me to do things like have my own car shipped out here from New York and live in a house instead of a hotel. I have spent my adult life pretending that wherever I am is home, so it means a lot to me when I actually get to stay somewhere for any length of time that really is home. I have a place in Manhattan, but I can’t remember the last time I spent three weeks in a row there. So this is a big treat for me.

That’s great. Of course you are still busy, right? Yes, I am pretty busy. I am working with Los Angeles Philharmonic on three different things: the Brahms concerto that I’ll be playing in Santa Barbara, a Mendelssohn concerto that I’ll play at Disney Hall in L.A., and another program, also in Disney Hall, that includes material from the new CD. I’m also working with some music students from Colburn School of Music on something, and I’ll be playing some chamber music as well — the Mendelssohn Octet. That’s quite a piece, the Mendelssohn Octet. It may be the most ambitious piece of 19th century chamber music. It’s certainly the greatest octet.

Agreed. Do you want to talk about your new record, Voice of the Violin? Sure; what do you want to know?

Was it hard to come up with something to follow Romance of the Violin? That was such a big hit — classical recording of the year. You’re right — Romance was a big hit, as far as classical goes. It charted for 100 weeks. I didn’t necessarily know the new one, Voice of the Violin, would be as popular, but I had learned so much about arranging from working on the arias for Romance that I thought the idea was worth trying. And Romance got me going also on making records that are unusual. Prior to these albums I recorded and released 25 CDs of the standard repertoire, where you know there are at least 50 other versions of the music already available by other musicians. So this was great for me, to be a little more daring and creative with what I record. That’s what I am trying to do with the live recordings as well, like the Tchaikovsky, and it’s certainly why I took the opportunities that I had with composers to play and record new works, as I have done with Nicholas Maw and John Corigliano. Even the Gershwin and Bernstein things I did are new in the sense that they involve premieres of totally new arrangements. I really enjoy the arranging — that’s where I am headed now, more into that.

Do you think Voice of the Violin has been a success? Oh yes, it debuted at number one. Of course it got knocked off number one a few weeks later — by Sting.

That’s harsh. Sting’s record is Songs from the Labyrinth, right? What’s going on with that? They are Elizabethan songs, and Sting plays the lute. (Pause.) I used to like Sting! (Laughs.)

That’s funny. Can I ask you about the piece you’re playing in Santa Barbara? The Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77? Sure, ask away. Is middle-period Brahms hot right now? Jennifer Frautschi played the same piece two weeks ago in the Arlington on opening night with the Santa Barbara Symphony. Middle-period Brahms is always hot; especially this concerto, which is one of the all-time classics. If you are a serious violinist, you’ve got to play it. It’s deep, heroic, and grand. I always feel lucky when I play it. How was Jennifer Frautschi? I’ve heard she’s good.

She was great. It will be interesting to compare. Go right ahead and compare us, but I will tell you something.

What’s that? I’m guessing that she probably played the Joachim cadenza, but I won’t be playing that, because I wrote my own. When I play the Brahms Violin Concerto in D, I play my cadenza.

4•1•1 CAMA presents Joshua Bell with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, November 4 at 8 p.m. Call 963-4408 or visit

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