Joshua Bell maintains a generally positive outlook on most aspects of today’s classical-music scene, but the famed soloist has his pet peeves, like the current penchant for ranking violinists past and present.
“It’s a phenomenon we see a lot these days on YouTube,” said the star violinist, who will perform in recital Feb. 12 at Symphony Center. “It’s one of things that I’m disturbed by, I have to say. You go online and you see an incredible vintage performance of [Jascha] Heifetz, and you’ll see hundreds of negative comments from students saying: ‘He sucks. David Oistrakh is No. 1.’ [Or] ‘Hilary Hahn is better than this person.’ It’s not the way music should be.”
The issue came up in a recent interview, because apparently unbeknownst to him, Bell took part in BBC Music magazine’s November ranking of the 20 greatest violinists of all time, as voted on by 100 of today’s premier players. Taking the top three spots were: 1. Oistrakh, 2. Heifetz and 3. Fritz Kreisler.
While Bell recalls the magazine asking him to name his three favorite violinists — Heifetz, Kreisler and Josef Gingold (his celebrated teacher at Indiana University) — he did not intend for his choices to be part of any poll. Indeed, he likely would not have participated had he known that was the intended use.
Bell, who turned 46 in December, usually doesn’t let matters rattle him. For instance, he typically isn’t bothered by applause between movements (traditionally considered to be a no-no), but he admits to getting miffed when premature clapping interrupts or overshadows the emotional impact of a quiet, meditative ending. With certain pieces, he sometimes even asks audiences ahead of time to hold their applause and allow for a moment of silence.
“But you do not want to alienate your audience,” he said. “They paid money to go there, and you never want to condescend to an audience. I think it is awful.”
At the end of December, Bell attended a concert of the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and the audience applauded after the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”), thinking the piece was over. In that particular case, conductor Jaime Laredo had the orchestra stand and acknowledge the ovation. But Bell’s companion that evening, conductor Michael Stern, recounted seeing a celebrated maestro turn around after similar applause during the same piece and lecture the audience on its “bad” manners.
“It makes me so mad to hear that kind of story,” Bell said.
But, as noted earlier, such moments of vexation are more the exception than the rule. He’s excited about many aspects of today’s classical scene, including the infusion of young, innovative chamber ensembles and the potentially transformative impact of social media and other evolving technology.
Bell made use of just such new technology on Nov. 26, when he invited a group of musical friends to his New York apartment for an intimate concert that was streamed on medici.tv (it’s available through Jan. 31, 2014). Among the performers taking part were Renée Fleming, Michael Feinstein and Frankie Moreno.
“We got 10,000 people watching live, and many more could watch it later on demand,” he said. “It was very exciting to be able do something like that from my home and have friends call me from other parts of the world and say that they saw my concert.”
At Symphony Center, he will be accompanied by pianist Sam Haywood. The program consists of Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G Minor, Op. 1, No. 10, “Devil’s Trill Sonata”; Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96, and Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano (after “The Fairy’s Kiss”). The rest of the program will be announced from the stage.
“I like to leave some room to do things in the moment,” he said. “I could have put in a piece like Ravel’s ‘Tzigane,’ or something like that, but I didn’t want to get locked into it. So I like to leave it as a little bit of a surprise. It’s basically encores, but just in case people were adding up the minutes, they know there’s more than what’s printed.”
More from Joshua Bell on the program and other subjects:
Working with pianist Chick Corea on Bell’s recent Christmas album, “Musical Gifts”: “I’ve always admired him. So to get to play his version of ‘Greensleeves,’ and to work with an improviser like him was just incredibly inspiring, and it actually affects the way I look at classical music. It broadens the way I look at it in a very helpful way.”
On Tartini’s Violin Sonata: “It’s an inspired piece. It’s really his masterpiece. In Baroque music, it allows for a little bit of improvisation, which I enjoy. I wrote my own little cadenza for it. We grow up as classical musicians so worried about the text and every note and playing them in the right place, and sometimes we forget that music was not always like that. Even when you know all the notes, it should feel improvised. Baroque music was a lot like jazz in that way.”
His fondness for chamber music: “Chamber music is my greatest love. Some of the greatest music is written for the intimacy of the chamber-music experience, and also [I like] the amount of preparation you can have and the give-and-take between you and the pianist or the quartet or whatever. When I come in as a soloist with an orchestra, that’s also exciting to play the Tchaikovsky [Violin] Concerto, but it’s very quick. The rehearsals are quick. There is not the kind of time that you have with chamber music. I enjoy learning, so the more I get to work with someone and bounce off ideas, [the better I like it], and a lot of that happens in the practice room and between concerts.”
On Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10: “The 10th Sonata, I find, is the deepest and most beautiful. Beethoven for the most part, just got deeper and deeper as he got older. His later works are just richer and richer and more and more concise, almost like poetry, as opposed to novel writing. It becomes dense, and every note has twice the meaning. Saying less and meaning more. The 10th Sonata, on the surface, it doesn’t have quite the bombastic flair of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, which everybody loves, but it’s got more depth and more poetry, and it’s also quite exciting and it doesn’t leave you scratching your head or anything like that.”
His appointment as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields: “Now, what I’m doing with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as music director kind of combines all those things [orchestral and chamber music], because with a chamber orchestra, it feels like chamber music. The way we approach symphonic repertoire is like chamber music, and I get to play my concertos without dealing with another conductor. I can conduct and ask for every little detail that I’ve always wanted from the Brahms concerto this week. It’s a lot more work, but it’s very rewarding.”
On Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano: “This version is more concise than the ballet version. It’s a really beautifully put together piece, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser. It’s got a lot of humor in it. It’s got some Tchaikovsky influences, of course, as a ballet composer. It’s got a little bit of everything, so it’s really fun for the audience.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based writer and reviewer.
VIDEO: From Joshua Bell’s YouTube channel, a recording of “At Home With Friends”: