Virtuoso Joshua Bell is the most recognized American violinist today. Because of his profile, Bell has the Herculean burden of meeting the varied expectations of anyone
and everyone. Over the past decade, he has suffered disappointment from many in the classical community for his oft-marketed image as a “crossover” artist. But those who would dismiss Bell have simply not been listening — either to his vast core-classical London/ Decca discography of the nineties or to the gems to be unearthed within his Sony Classical catalog of the aughts, namely a bluegrass album with Edgar Meyer, a film score by Corigliano and tasteful vintage-style albums of encore pieces. His forthcoming project is a “French” album — Franck, Ravel, Saint-Saëns — with pianist Jeremy Denk.
Expectations and image have taken a visible toll on Bell. Sitting on the roof deck of his Gramercy apartment, any mention of a project that falls outside the coreclassical sphere invariably elicits the reflexive response, “That’s two percent of what I do.” He is a little nervous, a little wary, a bit weary. Introducing himself, he mumbles his name, almost apologetically. Yet pushing resolutely through any defensiveness is a driving passion for — and conviction in — the music he champions.
You’re not afraid of crossing borders, of venturing away from classical, away from core classical, even away from classical altogether. Your Grove [Dictionary of Music and Musicians] entry says you’re ‘keen to escape the classical mould.’ Would you like to comment on that?
[Sighs in disgust.] When I hear that it makes me want to ask you, ‘What is classical?’ Because what does that mean? Classical is music spanning the last four hundred years, from Monteverdi to Stockhausen to music written today. I think in a lot of ways music is music, and classical means serious music? And what does that mean? How do you define what’s serious?
E-Musik and U-Musik [‘entertainment’ and ‘serious’ music].
Exactly, so I have a hard time with that. Some people might look at what I’ve done, at my repertoire, and say it’s ‘adventurous,’ I venture outside of classical. And then others might say it’s ‘conservative’ because I don’t do avant-garde, new classical, whatever that is.
Is it fair to say you’re a tonal guy?
Yeah. So for me, I do an arrangement of Porgy and Bess and people say, ‘Oh, he’s venturing outside of classical music.’ Or West Side Story. I find more in common with a Gershwin song and a Schubert song than with most modern music written today. And yet those two would be labeled classical, while playing a Bernstein thing or even a bluegrass tune, that would be somehow crossing over. But to me this is much more in line with how I was trained as a musician and how I view music. Or doing a film score, to me it’s all within the realm of how I was trained. Of course, there are projects where I’ve had to stretch — when I played with Edgar Meyer and Sam Bush [for Short Trip Home (Sony Classical)], immersed in playing with these guys —
— bluegrass pros —
— total pros, but [Bush] doesn’t really read music that much, so for him it was a stretch, too: he had to now read the music Meyer wrote and stretch a bit toward where I was coming from. So that was a situation where I wasn’t getting into the style as much as I could — I never for one second tried to be a bluegrass violinist, and Edgar didn’t want me to be: if he wanted a bluegrass violinist he would get a bluegrass violinist.
You weren’t playing the fiddler.
Right, he wanted to use my strengths as a classical violinist to play his music, which definitely had bluegrass roots and elements, but which he took to places with classical music technique. As classical musicians, we’re trained to wear many hats anyway, that’s what we do. In a single program, we’ll play Bach, then Schubert, then Prokofiev, and these are different approaches to phrasing — you really have to change gears. So getting inside a bluegrass style is not all that different to saying, ‘How do we approach Bach?’ You have to get inside a different way of phrasing, intonation, use of the bow. When I play Baroque music, it’s always finding the balance to being authentic and being honest to one’s self and not feeling as though you’re copying a style. Music, as far as I’m concerned, always has to feel like you’re inventing it on the spot and has to feel completely natural. So when it comes to Baroque music, I allow my years of playing with musicians that might be more historically informed in their approach — Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Steven Isserlis — to slowly change my approach to Baroque music, but I’ve never felt like I was just copying a style. You have to let it seep in. And I did the same thing with the bluegrass: it slowly started to feel idiomatic to play a certain way. And so I started to sound more like a fiddler, but I’m never going to be Mark O’Connor. And I didn’t want to be; I want to be me.
Are you espousing bluegrass and film as American idioms and therefore part of our classical tradition?