The symphony orchestra was conceived as the pinnacle of musical experiences, yet for several years now, and for a variety of reasons, many of the world’s greatest traditional symphonies have struggled with an identity crisis of sorts. The excitement of period instrument groups and of chamber music has stolen some of the fire that once belonged exclusively to the major city orchestras and the soloists and conductors who rode them to fame. Recently, some of the greatest musicians who have benefited from the symphony’s supremacy era have attempted to reimagine the role and purpose of the orchestra, particularly along the lines of musician-led chamber orchestras. Violinist Joshua Bell has had more than his share of success in the traditional symphonic arena, having played the best concertos with the top orchestras since he debuted as a teenager in the early 1980s. When Bell arrives at the Granada on Friday, April 27, he won’t be just the soloist with the extraordinary chamber orchestra known as the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields — he’ll also be conducting, something that sets both Bell and the orchestra he leads apart from the other top symphony orchestras playing today.
The all-Beethoven concert program scheduled for Santa Barbara has already received rave reviews in New York and Washington, D. C., where a critic for the Washington Post wrote that the show “was as superb a Beethoven Fourth as I’ve heard, delivered by a conductor of tremendous promise and genuine ideas — who also happens to be one heck of a violinist.” The one change that the audience can expect in the Granada will be that this time, the symphony will be Beethoven’s Seventh, an even greater composition than the Fourth, and one that has earned a reputation as a special favorite of musicians for its flowing, celebratory genius.
I spoke with Bell recently about the excitement and the challenges of this new post.
You’re the Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields now — quite an impressive title. What expectations are there for you in that role? This will be my first tour with that title, yes. Of course I’m honored, but I’ve played with the Academy for many years, so the relationship is not really new, and Sir Neville Marriner [the former Music Director] is turning 90, so he was ready to officially retire. As for the day-to-day responsibilities of the position, well, I’m not picking up and moving to London. This job is not like being the artistic director of the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony, where they play many, many concerts at their home, because the Academy spends more time on tour than it does in London. But that said, this is actually part of what I will be trying to accomplish — the Academy would like to expand their presence in their home base. Still, what I mainly will be doing for the Academy is something that I’ve done with them before, which is to go on long tours together, and now, as music director, I get to help make the basic decisions about repertoire and approach that will define the group in that context.
Speaking of which, what would you like to say about the all-Beethoven program that you plan to play at the Granada? Well, Beethoven’s is probably the best violin concerto ever. That and the Brahms; those are the two best. When it works, it’s just the most glorious orchestral music imaginable. But it’s a challenge, and it can make even a good violinist sound bad. Whatever happens, though, it is always an amazing journey, and I love to play it. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is great, too — it’s got less angst than the Fifth, and it’s more celebratory. The slow movement is perhaps the most revered slow movement in Beethoven, at least among musicians. When it comes in, people will feel that they’ve heard it before. I plan to lead the orchestra for that symphony from the violin, but it’s not like anyone is just following. In a group of this caliber, even a concerto is played like chamber music, and that’s one of the reasons I’m involved. My whole life, I’ve continued to play chamber music, and that’s the background from which I approach the orchestra.
What’s it like conducting while playing violin? I’m still learning how to conduct this way, but I’ve always been physical when I play, so there’s a certain vocabulary there, a body language that’s already in place. And the Academy? It’s what they are used to. Remember, that’s how Sir Neville Marriner [also a violinist] started out — conducting from the instrument. So they definitely know the body language of a violinist conductor.
Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields will be at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, April 27, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.