The view from above

Superstar violinist Joshua Bell on why a musician's life is for him.

joshua bell 88 298 (photo credit: )
joshua bell 88 298
(photo credit: )
In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Oscars for Best Original Score for The Red Violin, composer John Corigliano graciously took the time to thank the stellar soloist who brought the virtuoso piece alive. "...You know, you could write all the notes you want, but if someone doesn't play them like a god, they'll never sound that way... and Joshua Bell, the great violinist, played them like a god." As he lumbered through a Tel Aviv hotel lobby last week, the surprisingly tall, unshaven, sunglasses-wearing "god" looked very down to earth while distractedly checking two cellphones and finalizing lunch arrangements. Taking half an hour from his daunting concert schedule, he deigned to sit with this mortal representing The Jerusalem Post. A superstar in the classical music world, Bell is one of the most in-demand soloists on the circuit. He is on the road more than 200 days a year, and plays over 120 concerts, eight of which were with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra this November. Here, the musician played the Bruch and Saint-Saens violin concerti. But in the past month, the former Bloomington, Indiana native played six different concerti on various continents before arriving in the Holy Land. "It's been a crazy month," Bell says nonchalantly. "Sometimes it works out like that because everyone wants different things." That's all taken in stride since he has plenty more works in his active repertoire: The versatile soloist says that within a few days' notice, he could play any one of 15 concerti - and there are another 10 that he would want a little more time with. "And then I try to learn a new concerto every year. Either one that I'm commissioning to be written for me or there's still a whole list of great war horses I haven't played. Some of the 20th-century ones - Shostokovitch, Bartok - and then a lot of the great Romantic ones which I love, like Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. "So there's still lots to look forward to," he summarizes modestly. Having such an active "checking account" of concerti, one has to start to agree with Corigliano, or chalk it up to Bell's amazing discipline. Bell smiles and staunchly denies being a disciplined person. "A couple of days ago, someone in the Philharmonic told me a story of a violinist - I won't mention any names - who immediately after finishing a concert, would go back to her dressing room and they'd hear her practicing immediately all the things that went wrong. I'm not that disciplined." Discipline is obviously a relative term in the classical music world. "I think discipline depends how you define it," Bell explains. "For me, it is doing things that you feel you have to do which you don't really want to do. Like people who don't enjoy their work and go there anyway. Or exercising when you really don't feel like it. And I'm very bad. I am not disciplined. "I love to play the violin, so I work and I get addicted to fixing a problem, but that's more of a neurosis than a discipline. When I really have to do something that I don't want to do, I have to have a gun to my head - or a deadline." THE SON OF two Indiana University psychology professors, Bell may be more in the know than most when it comes to neuroses. But his supremely relaxed demeanor belies much first-hand knowledge and points to a level of maturity and balance that most former prodigies don't achieve. Part of his Zen-approach may have something to do with stepping back from the ever-looming instrument that he has played in front of orchestras since 14. "Basically I try to take a month off a year from playing. It never works out, so usually it's around three weeks maximum that I have without concerts," says Bell sheepishly. "When I have time off, I don't miss it, and when I come back to it, I'm very happy and enjoy coming back to it. "But I take lots of days without touching the violin. If I have four days off from concerts, I will often take two of those days without touching the violin and then come back to it. It's good physically and mentally." It was at Indiana University that Bell spent his formative years under the legendary educator and musician Joseph Gingold. An elegant gentleman, Gingold created in Bell an heir to a long dynasty of great Jewish violinists. "My teacher really provided me with a lot of tools too, because he didn't spoon-feed me and tell me how to play every note. He was not like that at all. So I didn't feel, when he died, or when I stopped studying with him, that I was left not knowing how to learn a new piece." Though Bell has produced high-profile recordings of great concerti, his new album, Voice of the Violin, is a bow to Gingold's musical roots. A follow-up to the best-selling Romance of the Violin, both discs are transcriptions of beautiful melodies. "Voice of the Violin is all vocal melodies, opera arias basically. Romance of the Violin is kind of a tribute to my heroes. Kreisler and Heifetz used to do that kind of thing, and I love that." Likewise, playing in Israel is a return to Bell's familial roots. His maternal grandfather was born here and each tour offers an opportunity to explore his Israeli and Jewish foundations. Despite that, does Bell have misgivings being associated with such a contentious state, especially following last summer's war? "Absolutely not. First of all, if I took that attitude, if I didn't agree with political decisions, I wouldn't be able to play many many places, including America. Should I boycott America because I don't agree with particular George Bush policies? Should I say, I'm not playing in this country anymore? To me that's ridiculous. "And also I have family here. So I feel very connected here, independent of what's going on politically. "In fact I don't understand the politics well enough to have an educated [opinion], and I don't think most people do. Here in Israel, actually people are better educated about politics than most places. But still, I wouldn't dare. I think you need to be qualified to have a strong political opinion." BELL IS increasingly branching out from "just" performing and is dabbling both in conducting and composing. He performs his own cadenzas to masterwork concerti and had a hand in arranging the melodies used for his new CD. He credits his major collaborators, conductor Michael Stern (son of the late great violinist Isaac Stern) and cellist Steven Isserlis as influences and says, "As a musician you're always learning from everyone you work with - and always arguing with everyone you work with. And so in that process you're learning and developing your set of rules of how you want to play music. And then you can teach yourself." On writing his own music, Bell says, "I'm getting closer to composing, and I do fool around with it. But though I would like to be more of a composer, I just don't have a lot of time to just sit and do that - and also it takes some guts to do that as well. I think there's nothing more difficult than creating something from nothing." Is there anyone in particular he goes to for advice as a budding composer? He reflects for a moment and says, "There are certain people that I really respect. If it's a compositional issue, if I'm writing something or arranging something, I would go to a composer friend like John Corigliano, who wrote the score of The Red Violin. He's just a mastermind." Some fact about Joshua Bell Name: Joshua Bell Date of birth: December 9, 1967 Profession: International concert violinist Instrument: 1713 "Gibson ex Huberman" Stradivarius. In 1936, young violinist Julian Altman stole the Strad from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman (who founded the Israel Philharmonic in the same year). In 1985, on his deathbed in jail for an unrelated crime, Altman confessed and divulged its location. Bell purchased the instrument in 2004 for some $4 million. (For a complete account, see New album: Voice of the Violin, a compilation of transcripts from opera arias and other vocal pieces, for violin. Composer he'd raise from the dead: "Wow that's such a hard one. I would say Beethoven would be up there. Such an intense character. Or Bach. In a way we don't know so much about Bach. It would be so interesting to know what he's like as a person." Downside of job: "There are a lot of unpleasant parts of my job that are not art-oriented. Like travelling [he's on the road more than 200 days a year] and getting on the planes, and interviews... I probably play more than 120 concerts a year, which is more than I should be doing. I'm trying to cut it down." Favorite way to escape: Network video games. "It's almost like a sport. I like real shoot 'em up games like Quake and Unreal... I mean it's really grotesque. But it's total escapism, which is something I need every once in a while. I don't play as much as I used to. When I was a teenager I was completely addicted and I played more video games than violin." Advice to budding musicians: "You have to love it. Music is more than a job, it's a way of life. It has to be your life. People know it when it is. You shouldn't go into it as a job like working in a bank. That's a 'viable job.' "I would highly recommend it to one who feels passionate about music. They don't have to be superstars, to make it in music in some way."