Joshua Bell: Classical Music Isn't Supposed to be Stuffy
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: I’m having a blast being the music director at the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. It certainly is challenging for me but I love challenges. I think as an artist, it’s very important to continue to be challenged and feel challenged all the time. So that’s - it’s easy in my field as if you become well known as a soloist and successful enough, you could probably get away with playing the same ten big pieces over and over again and get paid pretty well for it and have a very nice career. But I think it’s really important to always kind of stretch your boundaries and your limits and get out of your comfort zone. And for me, that’s very important. So the role of being of directing and conducting something I’d felt a territory I really wanted to move into and it’s been a kind of gradual process that’s felt very organic.
But, so my role as music director as title is rather new. But I’ve had a relationship with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields for, not counting my very first recording 25 years ago with Sir Neville Marriner and the orchestra. The last ten years I’ve been touring with them as a director, guest director, conductor, and getting to know them and increasing the repertoire from the numbers in the orchestra from smaller string things to bigger things with winds and finally into the big Beethoven symphonies and that’s where we are now.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields established itself with, I mean, amazing reputation over the years. I think they’re the most recorded orchestra in history. Mostly because Neville Marriner was incredibly prolific with his repertoire and would go in the recording studio with that orchestra almost every two weeks or three weeks and make a recording. I think they have a thousand recordings in their catalog.
So if you turn on the classical station, very likely you’re going to hear one of those - within an hour you’ll hear something with the Academy of St. Martin in the Field. So they have this great reputation. I – and as a very classy orchestra and they’ve a wonderful sound. I guess, I kind of want to bring them into something - I want them to have this reputation of being, I guess a little bit younger in attitude and very exciting and visceral. And I think that’s something that when we play together that’s something very special that happens, our chemistry. And the fact that I direct them from the violin so I sit in the concertmaster chair and I direct -I conduct, I play. It feels like a big chamber music like big string quartet but with more people, that kind of feeling where everybody on the edge of their seats rather than the way, unfortunately, the way a lot of people perceive orchestras as being somewhat calmer, you know.
So the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has such a great reputation as a classy organization and so you - one doesn't need to play concerts at the Acropolis or whatever to, you know, necessarily to differentiate itself. But there’s still attracting young listeners is something so important to me and to all of us. The next generation of listeners and sometimes that means playing in venues that are a little bit different. Or even our attire, you know, I am trying to work on maybe just getting rid of some of the white-tie entails, which really has nothing to do with the music. I’ve got rid of it for myself a long time ago. That really has nothing to do with music and it sometimes stands in the way. It makes, it only supports the cliché, you know, that classical music is somehow old and stuffy, which it doesn’t have to be. But playing in venues and maybe, you know, experimenting with midnight concerts or jeans concerts or kids concerts, I think it’s all stuff we’re all talking about and visiting and I think it’s extremely important.
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd
Recently appointed director of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell is trying to make classical music accessible to younger audiences without dumbing it down.
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