As one of the top concert violinists in the world, Joshua Bell plays in approximately 100 cities a year. With his concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall approaching, ASW catches up with this brilliant musician to talk about The Red Violin Concerto’s recording, touring the world and what it means to be dubbed a ‘Young Global Leader’.
Q. How and when did you become a member of ASW?
Joshua Bell: I was invited to ASW by a friend two and a half years ago and tested the waters soon after by tentatively posting a thread concerning my upcoming trip to Berlin. Since I had a few friends there and had some extra comp tickets for my concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, I asked if anyone might want to use them and perhaps meet up for drinks afterwards. I was surprised by the warm response and we ended up with a very large group of ASWers at the concert (and LOTS of drinks afterwards!). I have instigated several such gatherings in cities around the world and have made some really wonderful friends this way.
Q. How do you use ASW and what’s your favorite site feature?
JB: Since I travel to 100 or so cities each year, I find the city guide very useful for restaurant recommendations.
Q. You’ll be playing at the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of Proms in London. Sounds exciting. How do you feel about this particular opportunity?
JB: The Proms is one my favorite events and I play on the series almost every summer. The Royal Albert Hall seems to attract a younger audience, partially because of its uniquely casual atmosphere (the whole lower level is without seats and the ‘Promenaders’ stand throughout the concert) and The Proms sells out night after night (7000 tickets) throughout the season while maintaining a serious classical programme.
In an age when sceptics question the future of classical music, The Proms proves that there is a big audience for the genre, given that the conditions are right. September 8th will be my first time playing on the Last Night of the Proms. I’ll be playing mostly selections from my last album Voice of the Violin, including a duet with the amazing (and beautiful!) soprano, Anna Netrebko.
Q. You go on tour a lot. What do you like/dislike about it?
JB: I’ve been touring for more than 20 years now (since I was fourteen) so I can hardly imaging a life without travel. I play 120 concerts a year which keeps me away from home about two thirds of the time. I love the variety and unpredictability of living on the road. Sure, I’m pretty sick of airports (ah, I wish I could afford to fly privately, but this is rarely an option for me) and I miss my friends and family at home, but I wouldn’t trade my ‘job’ for anything.
Q. Which has been your favourite place to play thus far? Why?
JB: Just this week I returned to Moscow after 17 years (last time I played there it was still the Soviet Union) and participated in a concert on the Red Square – an amazing experience. It’s fun to notice the ways different audiences react to music, and Eastern European audiences rank among the most appreciative.
As thrilling as it is to play for big audiences like those in the Red Square or the Hollywood Bowl, my most enjoyable musical moments have been in places like the intimate Wigmore Hall in London, the Musikverein in Vienna and of course, the magical Carnegie Hall in NYC.
Q. You were the only American musician to be named by the World Economic Forum as one of the 250 ‘Young Global Leaders’. How do you feel about that title?
JB: Well, I’m not exactly sure what ‘global leading’ means or why I was chosen for this list, but it certainly is an honor. It also makes me happy to see that artists and musicians were included amongst the politicians and entrepreneurs on the list. Personally, I avoid getting involved directly in politics and I’m sceptical of any art that calls itself political. I feel that the greatness of art and music transcends politics and speaks to more elemental and profound truths of the human spirit. However, it is precisely because of this that art can have a powerful effect on the world as a community.
Q. What would be your advice to the young, budding musicians out there?
JB: I’m often asked what advice to give budding musicians and it’s hard to say. Should they get a ‘real job’? For those who make music, it is more of a way of life than a job. For many, even many great musicians, making a living can be a struggle, but if one truly loves music then it becomes something that one simply must do.
Q. As your most famous work, The Red Violin must be extremely significant for you. How does it feel to revisit the score for a concerto?
JB: The Red Violin was my first experience working with film and I’ve since sought out other film projects. One of my recent favorite collaborations was in a film called Ladies in Lavender with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. However, it will be hard for me to ever find a more involving movie project than The Red Violin.
I think it’s an incredible piece of music and an example of how a modern composer can write something that sounds new and inventive, yet melodic and beautiful. Sony/BMG will be releasing my recording of it just this week and I’ll be performing the concerto often this year.
Q. You released a new CD this year. Tell us about The Essential Joshua Bell.
JB: The Essential is essentially a compilation of my favorite bits from all the albums I’ve done for Sony. The pieces are mostly drawn from my more recent Romance of the Violin and Voice of the Violin, as well as more serious classical stuff like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. It also includes some crossover collaborations with other musicians like Bela Fleck and my bluegrass buddies Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush, and Mike Marchal.
Confusingly, my old record company, Universal, has also recently released a recording of the exact same name (The Essential J.B.), but this is just a haphazard mix from my ten years of recording for Decca, done without my consent or consultation, so I’d recommend the Sony one.
Q. You live in New York. Do consider NY to be the musical centre of the world? How does it compare to other music capitals?
JB: I’ve lived in NYC for 18 years and can hardly imagine living anywhere else. Basically in New York you can eat anything, see everything and hear almost any kind of music on any given night. For classical music, New York is perhaps the ‘centre’ of the world, although London is a close rival. In general, Europe is in many ways the place to be for classical music – and I spend almost half my year there – but I am always happy to come home. Furthermore, I’ve spent the last two years building my dream home in the Gramercy Park area. And after a gut-job renovation, I’m finally getting ready to move in – I’m so excited!
Q. If you weren’t a violinist, what would you be? Why?
JB: If I hadn’t gone into music I would have gravitated toward something in the areas of science (I love physics), medical research or psychology.
Q. Where is your favorite travel destination?
JB: I love Italy, Asia, South America… too many places to name. Since I travel for work, I rarely travel for fun. But I’ve been known to go on the occasional golf trip or catch a last minute flight to Las Vegas for a fun escapade.
Q. What is your greatest vice?
JB: I definitely have an addictive personality. Luckily, I’ve never done any drugs, but I did waste countless hours playing video games as a kid when I should have been practicing. I also have a weakness for gambling, which I inherited from my mother who plays poker three times a week at the age of 72! Did I mention Vegas?
Q. What are your top 5 hotels?
JB: Calistoga Ranch in Napa (those outdoor showers!), The Gramercy Park Hotel in NYC, The Baglioni in London, The Plaza Athénée in Paris and pretty much any Four Seasons.
Q. What is your favorite restaurant?
JB: In NYC, Sushi of Gari and Eleven Madison, French Laundry in California and Girardet in Switzerland (now taken over by Phillipe Rochat).
Q. What is your favorite museum or gallery?
JB: MOMA in NYC
Q. What is your favorite beach?
JB: I prefer the mountains, but I do like spending time on the beach when I’m in Rio – watching the waves, of course.
Q. What book has had the greatest effect on you? Why?
Q. What is your favorite film?
JB: Breaking Away, a brilliant, but not too well-known film set in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Also, I like lots of Woody Allen.
Q. What is your favorite ski resort?
JB: I love both Aspen and Verbier – I spend time in both during the summer because of the music festivals
Q. What cause is closest to your heart? Why?
JB: I work mostly with causes involving children, like Education Through Music, which puts music programs in schools that have none (usually in low-income neighbourhoods). I also do a lot for Paul Newman’s charity, the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for kids with terminal illnesses.
Q. What’s one thing you would like to change about yourself?
JB: I really wish I had more discipline. Unless I enjoy doing something, I tend not to do it if I can put it off for a later time.
Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
JB: I once got dragged onto stage by Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea after stupidly agreeing, just before the show, to improvise a song with them in front of thousands of people. I’m sure I sucked and probably made a fool of myself, but in the end it was a thrill and I was glad that I did it.
Q. Who is your favorite historical figure?
JB: A toss-up between Einstein and Newton. Both epitomized ‘thinking outside the box’ and changed the world.
Q. What upsets you the most?
JB: Dishonesty and poor communication skills. The world would be a much better place if people just dared to communicate properly –I’m still learning this myself, of course.
Q. What gadget can’t you live without?
JB: My laptop, a Macbook Pro, as my life seems to revolve around the computer. I’m loving my iPhone, too.
Q. What are you most afraid of?
JB: Death. Not so much the act of dying, but never living again. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was a kid.
Q. Where do you love to shop?
JB: I could shop for gadgets for hours on end at the Apple store on 5th Ave. I like clothes, but hate shopping for them. I’ve recently started paying someone to do it for me.
Q. What’s your favorite drink?
JB: A good milkshake, vodka or perhaps a milkshake with vodka in it.
Q. What are your top 3 songs?
JB: Um … Bach, Beethoven and Brahms
— Alonso Dominguez