Joshua Bell now has an orchestra following his lead

Posted 8:57am on Monday, Feb. 18, 2013

When the Cliburn Concerts audience sits down to hear Joshua Bell at Bass Hall on Monday, it will already know him as a superb violinist and one of the world's true classical superstars. It may not yet know about another facet of the popular artist's career: He has become a conductor.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a distinguished London orchestra, recently named him as only the second music director in its 55-year history. The relationship was made public Tuesday with the release of Joshua Bell Conducts Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 & 7 .

In a recent phone interview, Bell, 45, made it clear that the new development was a natural outgrowth of a long-standing relationship. "I had been directing the orchestra as a guest and a soloist for about a decade, on occasion touring with them.

"We had developed a nice working relationship, and when the time came last year for the orchestra to appoint a new music director -- Neville Marriner was almost 90 -- we already had a relationship and they asked me if I was willing.

"It happened organically. I didn't audition or even know that they were looking."

Bell does his conducting in an old-fashioned way that would have been familiar to musicians such as Haydn and Mozart: Rather than standing in front of the orchestra with a baton, "I sit on the concertmaster's chair and play along with the first violins much of the time, though sometimes I don't -- when I have a solo part. I use my bow as a baton. It's different than a conductor with a baton; it's a form of conducting that forces everyone to play a little bit like chamber music. It's more organic than having someone with a stick standing in front."

London orchestras are renowned in the music business for unusually quick preparation of concerts. Bell agrees with that assessment. He says that the Academy is "such a flexible orchestra. That's true of the players in all the great orchestras in London. They are known for being the quickest and most flexible in the world."

Bell sees this as a necessity attributable to the fact that London's musical life is exceptionally busy and the musicians are generally freelancers who play in several orchestras. The players "are often overworked," he says.

Those who enjoy Bell's violin artistry needn't worry that he's thinking about a career switch. "I'll keep doing everything I've been doing but just do it more," he says.

"I'm not planning on dropping the violin anytime soon, but I've noticed that some conductors are able to conduct in their 90s. When I get to be 85 and my fingers are not working as well, it'll be good to have that skill under my belt."

Bell's Bass Hall program won't involve an orchestra. He'll play a recital program with Sam Haywood as his pianist partner. The pieces include Schubert's Sonatina in A minor, Strauss's Sonata in E-flat, Opus 18, and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Opus 94.

Bell says the program was "designed around the Strauss. It's something I had never done until this year -- a big, epic, wonderful piece."

The violinist says that the music of Schubert has a special place in his heart. "Schubert is in my top three [composers], if not my very top. He's a master of writing beautiful melodies. What's great about Schubert is that from the second you start, his music completely draws the listener into another world."

Bell says of Monday night's Schubert: "It's simple -- even an amateur could read his way through it -- but it's a musical challenge to do it justice."

Bell is celebrating a 300th anniversary this year. He plays a Stradivarius violin once owned by one of his heroes, violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The violin was made in 1713.

"It's kind of neat. It's going to be 300 years old this year. I'm going to celebrate. We don't know the actual date, but I'm working on making a proper celebration."

Bell also points out another anniversary: One of the Beethoven symphonies on his new disc, the seventh, will be 200 years old in December.

Bell hints that his latest release may be the start of a series. He compares starting with Beethoven to "doing Hamlet as your first job as an actor." He's tackling Beethoven's Fifth Symphony this year. "I'm in no rush to finish all nine, but that's my ultimate goal before I die."

Incidentally, Bell has a special interest in next Sunday's Oscar ceremonies. He and Scarlett Johansson performed the song Before My Time from the documentary Chasing Ice. Its composer, Joshua Ralph, has been nominated for an Oscar.

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