Joshua Bell: Beethoven the Joyful
Often referred to as the "poet of the violin," Joshua Bell is one of the world's most celebrated violinists. He continues to enchant audiences with his breathtaking virtuosity, tone of sheer beauty, and charismatic stage presence. His restless curiosity, passion, universal appeal, and multi-faceted musical interests have earned him the rare title of "classical music superstar." Bell's most recent challenge is his appointment as the new Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the first person and first American to hold this post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the orchestra in 1958. The ensemble's first 15-concert tour to the U.S. garnered rave reviews, and as one orchestra member blogged in Gramophone "the audience reaction all tour has been nothing short of rock concert enthusiasm." Their first recording under Bell's leadership as Music Director/conductor will be the 4th and 7th symphonies of Beethoven to be released by Sony Classical February 12, 2013 with plans to eventually perform and record all the Beethoven symphonies.
Always seeking opportunities to increase the violin repertoire, Bell has premiered new works by composers Nicholas Maw, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Edgar Meyer, Behzad Ranjbaran and Jay Greenberg. Mr. Bell also performs and has recorded his own cadenzas to many of the major violin concertos.
Bell has been embraced by a wide television audience with appearances ranging from The Tonight Show, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose, and CBS Sunday Morning to Sesame Street and Entertainment Tonight. In 2010 Bell starred in his fifth Live From Lincoln Center Presents broadcast titled: Joshua Bell with Friends @ The Penthouse. Other PBS shows include Great Performances – Joshua Bell: West Side Story Suite from Central Park, Memorial Day Concert performed on the lawn of the United States Capitol, and A&E’s Biography. He has twice performed on the Grammy Awards telecast, performing music from Short Trip Home and West Side Story Suite. He was one of the first classical artists to have a music video air on VH1 and he has been the subject of a BBC Omnibus documentary. Bell has appeared in publications ranging from Strad and Gramophone to, The New York Times, People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue, USA Today, The Wall St. Journal, GQ, Vogue and Readers Digest among many. In 2007, Bell performed incognito in a Washington, DC subway station for a Washington Post story by Gene Weingarten examining art and context. The story earned Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize and sparked an international firestorm of discussion which continues to this day.
Growing up with his two sisters in Bloomington, Indiana, Bell indulged in many passions outside of music, becoming an avid computer game player and a competitive athlete. He placed fourth in a national tennis tournament at age 10, and still keeps his racquet close by. At age four, he received his first violin after his parents, both mental health professionals, noticed him plucking tunes with rubber bands he had stretched around the handles of his dresser drawers. By 12 he was serious about the instrument, thanks in large part to the inspiration of renowned violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold, who had become his beloved teacher and mentor. Two years later, Bell came to national attention in his highly acclaimed debut with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Carnegie Hall debut, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a notable recording contract soon followed, further confirming his presence in the musical world.
In 1989, Bell received an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from Indiana University where he currently serves as a senior lecturer at the Jacobs School of Music. His alma mater honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Service Award, he has been named an “Indiana Living Legend” and is the recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts Award.
In 2011 Bell received the Paul Newman Award from Arts Horizons and the Huberman Award from Moment Magazine. Bell was named “Instrumentalist of the Year, 2010 by Musical America and that same year received the Humanitarian Award from Seton Hall University. In 2009 he was honored by Education Through Music and he received the Academy of Achievement Award in 2008 for exceptional accomplishment in the arts. In 2007 he was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize and recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in 2005.
Today Bell serves on the artist committee of the Kennedy Center Honors and is on the Board of Directors of the New York Philharmonic. He has performed before President Obama at Ford’s Theatre and at the White House and recently returned to the Capital to perform for Vice President Biden and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.
Bell performs on the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin and
Joshua Bell: Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies have a certain amount in common. Well of course they’re both written by Beethoven but besides that, I would say their overall effect and idea is to provide the listener with an incredible sense of joy. Most people think of Beethoven as the conductor shaking his fist at the world, you know, the tormented Beethoven’s fifth symphony, you know, and there’s plenty of that in these pieces. But these pieces are very much came from a place of joy.
And there’s no better example I think of all of music of this celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of the human spirit than in the seventh symphony for sure. And in the fourth symphony, it’s perhaps a slightly more innocent sense in the four symphony. It’s just a - there’s a spirit of fun and joy that’s maybe unparalleled in any of the other symphonies of Beethoven as well.
So the seventh symphony is one that I think I know the best as far as growing up with it. It was my first big symphony I fell in love with, the seventh. It was my mother’s favorite. She played it a lot on the record player when they used to have records. And that symphony is - even Beethoven loved that symphony of his own symphony. He thought that was one of his greatest works. And this slow moment of that is the crown jewel of it, and maybe of all the symphonies. It’s - when it was premiered it was actually - it’s hard to imagine now the way symphony concerts work but at the time there is so much applause after that movement that they had to repeat the movement again in the premiere, which is by the way exactly 200 years ago this year, the premiere of the seventh symphony.
They had to actually play it over again because the audience wouldn't stop clapping. And in fact people often even sometimes replaced other symphonies of Beethoven with their slow movement, with the second movement of the seventh symphony 'cause it was so beloved, another thing that we can’t imagine ever happening today. But anyway the slow movement there is the exception to the joy of the rest of the movement because it’s the most perfect example of expression of grief and lament, I would say, but in a way that’s not over-the-top, not tearing at your heartstrings with just a beautiful melody. It’s not, as much as I love Tchaikovsky’s, it’s not that kind of lament.
It’s something so deep and hits your soul so strongly in such a subtle way without banging you over the head with it that it goes directly to your soul in a way that’s just remarkable.
People have heard these pieces hundreds of times perhaps. Anyone who knows classical music and loves classical music has heard the Beethoven seventh hundreds of times probably in their life. It’s interesting about classical music that the more you hear something, the more you get to know a piece, the better and better it gets, period, which is just an interesting thing on it. So I can’t think it was a movie, a film that I would want to see more than once maybe twice if it’s a great film. Maybe a few times, but there’s something about classical music because - perhaps because it’s so abstract and you don’t get tired of it and yet you find more and more in it.
And so the retelling of these stories, you might say, of these symphonies, is something that we can bear over and over again. But new interpretations - I mean there’s so many ways to create a phrase in so many ways to - I actually saw something on YouTube the other day, somebody compiled the first two bars of the third symphony, the Eroica Symphony, which are these two great crashing chords, bum, bum. And then it starts the piece [MUSIC] that’s the third - this compilation was just the first two bars of these two big chords.
But he compiled like 50 versions, one after another. And just from those two chords, the amount of variety of the way people approach it was so incredible that it had to make you smile, just how different each conductor, each orchestra can approach these two chords, which you think how different could they be. So that just shows that there’s, it’s infinite amount of ways to create it.
So basically my approach is not to be different from anybody else. That’s, I think, the fundamentally wrong way to approach any music, just to be different because you think people are tired of the way of hearing it told. You’re really looking for the truth of what the piece is about. And that’s going to be different for different people.
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd
Bell describes Beethoven's 4th and 7th symphonies as joyful music, in contrast to the cliché of the composer as primarily gloomy and intense.
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