Joshua Bell Returns: Cue the Spotlight

Jeff Kaliss on September 12, 2012
Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell

After a year in residency status here (though without a fixed abode), violinist Joshua Bell has been invited back by the San Francisco Symphony as centerpiece for this season’s Opening Night Gala. The still-boyish 44-year-old native of Bloomington, Indiana, has covered plenty of other geographic and musical territory, collaborating in a variety of genres (represented on his 2009 Sony release, At Home With Friends) and contributing to film soundtracks and even a perfume ad. Last year, Bell was tapped as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and his latest Sony recording is this year’s French Impressions. A soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14, Bell now insists on interspersing performances with the next generation among his many concerts and other appearances. His handlers allowed him 10 minutes for this conversation with SFCV.

At this coming weekend’s gala, where patrons will dress for the society page, will they find you with that leisurely open-collar look we’re used to in your publicity shots?

You know, dress has always been a sticky issue for me, because classical musicians have always dressed so formally. But when you’re playing the violin, you want to be — at least I want to be — as free as possible with my arms. Just this year, I’ve struck the right balance: I’ve found a way of wearing a formal-looking vest over an open-collar shirt. I’ll probably be less dressed than your audience, and I certainly don’t want to offend anybody, but music comes first.

They’re looking forward to seeing you, and I doubt they’ll mind much. So, the collar is more of an issue for violinists?

Absolutely. The violin happens to fit right under the chin, right where your collar and bow tie might be, but where it wouldn’t affect a pianist. It was a relief when I felt I could get away without the tie.

Here in residence last year, I’d think you might have found out that we can hang loose. What kind of impressions did you take away?

I love my city, New York, too; and I think that New York and San Francisco are my top two cities in the country, as far as livability is concerned. Most cities I might go to every other year, and there are just too many cities in the world, and not enough time to see them all, so I’m glad San Francisco asked me to come several times in one season, though I didn’t move there for the year. It’s an arts city, they appreciate their arts, and whenever I’ve been there, there have been very full and enthusiastic audiences.

You got to hang with younger musicians, at the San Francisco Conservatory and in the San Francisco Symphony’s Youth Orchestra.

Probably the first time I ever came to the Symphony, in 1991, I visited the Youth Orchestra, and it’s always been one of the best anywhere, which has always made me very happy. They’ve got a great head start on other cities, and they’re much more likely to become musicians. I realize that the Gala Concert is benefitting education [and community programs], and that’s fantastic. Trying to reach kids is very important to me, not just so they can be the next professional musicians, though some will; it’s even more important that they just have music in their lives. They’re our future audiences, as well.

Trying to reach kids is very important to me, not just so they can be the next professional musicians … it’s even more important that they have music in their lives.

Did you and Michael Tilson Thomas get to share your priorities about the next generation? It’s a big deal for him, too.

I know it is. I’ve known MTT since I first played with him 25 years ago, though it’s been several years since we’ve played together, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again. He was a big fan of Leonard Bernstein, someone else who was one of the great connectors to young people. On YouTube, you can see how infectious Bernstein made the music when he talked about it.

I’m old enough to remember him on TV [starting in 1958].

For me, music is music. … It’s very hard to separate out technique from expression.

Lucky you!

Is your own impact as a role model strengthened by your work in movies and in bluegrass and other musics?

When I collaborate with artists who are not inside the “normal” classical world, many of them have built-in younger audiences. My going on The Tonight Show and doing movie soundtracks are also a way in for young people. I’ve even been on Sesame Street a couple of times. I happen to love kids.

Does fence-hopping genres keep it lively for you, too?

It does. And so does performing with youth orchestras, because their enthusiasm is something all major orchestras can learn from. They should be required to go listen to a youth orchestra, because it reminds us all, of every age, how we should approach music: with a sense of wonder. I just came back from South Africa yesterday, where I visited kids in a township school. They had a great musical program someone had come in and built up, and it just lifted the whole school in so many ways. It was the highlight of my tour — visiting a hundred kids that were playing and dancing for me. It reminded me of the power music has for young people.

Do you wield your instrument differently in different genres?

The technique is always at the service of the music, and it even changes from playing Mozart to playing Brahms or Shostakovich or Gershwin. It’s a natural thing. For me, music is music, so I don’t make artificial boundaries. It’s very hard to separate out technique from expression, from what you’re trying to say.

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