The combination of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) and violinist/conductor Joshua Bell is proving to be one of the most exciting and powerful alliances in contemporary classical music. And it’s not just about Bell’s status as a crossover superstar or the Academy’s long-standing reputation for flawless technique and historically informed performance. Rather, the unanimous acclaim this group has received has centered on the chemistry between the two. The passion and humility with which Bell participates alongside his musical colleagues has set off a sympathetic response in the orchestra, and the result has been an unbroken series of triumphs, both in the concert hall and on record.
Bell and the Academy return to the Granada on Friday, March 21, for CAMA’s International Series. They will play works by Bach, Beethoven (his Symphony No. 1), Saint-Saëns, and Schubert. I spoke with Bell by phone last week, and he reflected on his collaboration with the ASMF, on conducting while playing, and on the greatness of Bach and Beethoven.
What’s it like conducting and playing at the same time? How does it work? In concertos I stand up, and I conduct with the bow when I’m not playing. During symphonies I sit, but sometimes I stop playing to conduct. Being seated in a section allows me to feel more like we’re playing chamber music, which is how I like to approach it.
How has your role as conductor influenced your experience of the music you play? The symphonies are the things that, as a soloist, I’ve not gotten to play. I used to travel the world playing concertos, and then I would sit and listen to the symphony. Now I play on both, and while it is exhausting, it is also very rewarding. Playing the Beethoven symphonies, for example, is a consummate experience for a musician because Beethoven speaks so directly to who we are as people.
In Santa Barbara, the program includes a Bach violin concerto. How would you describe your approach to Bach? Bach withstands so many different approaches. I mean, even Switched-On Bach [the synthesizer arrangements of Walter/Wendy Carlos] retains the beauty of his style, so it’s not like there’s only one right way to play his music. The beauty will still come through. Both the ASMF and I have been heavily influenced by early-music approaches, but that doesn’t mean we will jump into that style with both feet. The ASMF does, however, have a certain early-music sensibility, and that will affect it.
You’ve had such success right away with this combined role of conductor and soloist. Should conductors be worried? Are musicians like you going to render them obsolete? No, that’s not going to happen. Orchestras do still need conductors. The fact that I’m not spending the entire concert standing on a podium waving a stick doesn’t mean that I don’t prep the orchestra in rehearsal just like any other conductor would. Good conductors know when to push and when to lay back. I’ve known so many great conductors that I’m still doing what I can to learn the craft of this role. But if you look back, the history of music makes it seem less strange — Beethoven himself was more than one thing. So one way I think about what I’m doing now is that I’m trying to bring out more than one side of Beethoven. That’s what I’m after.
CAMA presents Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, March 21, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 899-2222 or visit camasb.org.