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Joshua Bell: Exclusive Interview: January 10, 2012

Joshua Bell
French Impressions
Joshua Bell


Sony Classical
Rel. 10 Jan 2012

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On Monday, December 12, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with famed American violinist Joshua Bell – for their second interview – shortly before the release of his new Sony Classical release, French Impressions, dedicated to three violin sonatas by César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Maurice Ravel, and featuring the fruits of a seven-year collaboration with pianist Jeremy Denk. In this delightful interview, Mr. Bell discusses his approach to this rich and timbre-dominated repertoire, and the dynamic partnership with Jeremy Denk that informed the musical decisions of their performances. The two also discuss Mr. Bell’s aesthetic toward the recording process, the importance of his training with violinist Josef Gingold, his current activities – including his new appointment as music director of the St. Martin-in-the Fields, and much more. Our feature also includes a 1-Click Joshua Bell concert, with full streams for subscribers, and a set of Joshua Bell videos. Don’t miss this great interview to start out the New Year!

“When you play a big piece like the Franck Violin Sonata, it’s like directing a movie: you have to know how to pace it – where to take your time, and where to move, because you can’t dwell on every single moment; there’s beauty throughout. You have to think of an overall picture.”
– Joshua Bell

Nolan Gasser: Joshua Bell, welcome back to Classical Archives. Our previous interview took place a tad over two years ago, just following the release of At Home With Friends – a CD of diverse musical styles and guest artists. It's been a busy couple of years for you since then – with some exciting new projects we'll hopefully get a chance to talk about. Not least among these is the release next month of your new Sony Classical CD, quite different from the last one, entitled French Impressions, dedicated to the music of Franck, Saint-Saëns and Ravel. This is your first recital CD since joining Sony in 1996 and also the first recording featuring your collaboration with pianist Jeremy Denk. So, can you share with us the impetus of this recording – both the repertoire, and inspiration to at last, after seven years, to devote an album to what has been called the "Bell-Denk Dream Team”?

Joshua Bell: I’m very pleased about this disc on many levels; everything came together: the timing, the collaborator, and the right pieces – I just felt ready. It was time to put three of my favorite sonatas on a recording. These are all “standards” of the repertoire and I’ve wanted to record them together for a long time; I’ve been playing them practically my entire musical life – they’re three of my absolute “desert island picks”. And I have a collaborator, Jeremy Denk, with whom I’ve worked now for seven years or so  – we’ve been touring a lot as we’ve gotten to know each other, and have played this repertoire for many years now. So, I finally felt ready to make this recording, and I’m very happy with it.

NG: Indeed, I've had a chance to hear the disc, and it is terrific. You may know that I likewise had a chance to speak with Jeremy Denk about his two most recent solo CDs – of the piano works of J.S. Bach [Partitas Nos.3, 4, and 6] and Charles Ives [the first two piano sonatas]. I thus got to see what a strong and colorful personality he is, along with being a consummate pianist and a bit of scholar.

We’ll be talking about the actual content of the CD shortly, but let’s first chat a bit about your partnership with Jeremy. There’s been some good buzz about the rapport between you two – the friendly arguments and the constructive exchange of ideas. I enjoyed reading, for example, something Jeremy said: that he’s the one who gets lost in those transcendent moments of beauty, and thus he looks to you to keep tabs on the overall narrative.

JB: [Laughs] Oh, really?

NG: Well, at least that's how he framed it… So, can you give us a little insight into your rehearsing process – a little window into a Josh and Jeremy session?

JB: On a basic level, when you work with someone that closely, you have to share fundamental musical values – which we do. If you have that to start with, then the fun part is finding the differences and arguing through them. That’s how you learn, and how your ideas about music form and change. When you play a big piece like the Franck Violin Sonata [in A, M.8], it’s like directing a movie: you have to know how to pace it – where to take your time, and where to move, because you can’t dwell on every single moment; there’s beauty throughout. You have to think of an overall picture. When we work, each of us will have different ideas of what the “great” moments are – which ones need extra time, and how to pace from one section to another; these are the decisions that distinguish one performance from another. Some things we can do at the spur at the moment, but others things really have to be worked out; and some things can’t be compromised because you have to choose and not just average it out.

NG: Right, like two different ideas of tempo for a particular passage.

JB: Yes, exactly. What I like about Jeremy is that he’s a scholar; if you read his blog [Think Denk] – which is followed by tens of thousands of people, you see how scholarly he is about music. But when you play with him, there’s spontaneity and a feeling that’s being invented in the moment – not just the outcome of someone who has studied and written a dissertation on the music. Sometimes you get one or the other sort with musicians – either the scholar or the “artiste” who do whatever comes to them in the whim of the moment; but when you get someone who can manage both, it’s really something. So, it’s been really nice… Of course, we’ve had some fights and tension now and then – especially when you tour with someone for seven years in a row [laughs].

NG: Sure, there are musical tensions, and I then there are other kinds of tensions too…

JB: Luckily, though, he's a good guy, and easy to travel with; and for the most part, we've gotten along very well.

NG: I can imagine. It's obviously a joy to work with somebody that you respect and from whom you can learn, for you want to be challenged. Even if you've done a piece your whole life, as you say, there's always something new to be gained by looking at it again – that's why we keep coming back to the same pieces over and again I've actually been listening to your earlier recording of the Franck Sonata with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet [from 1989]; it’s quite different …

JB: Boy, I haven't heard that recording for 20 years; you've done your homework!

NG: Of course! Well, it was a long time ago – some 22 or so. Comparing these recordings brings us right back to our earlier discussion – all the decisions that need to be made: issues of tempi, when to dwell or not, etc. And there’s also the question – and especially with this repertoire – of color and timbre, or shading and dynamics, and all those subtle elements. Clearly these latter are very important to you and Jeremy. Now, I know that Jeremy is a very big fan of Marcel Proust [the early 20th century French novelist, best know for À la recherche du temps perdu], and weaves rather Proustian themes into his liner notes for your new CD – about time and memory, as when a theme comes back into the development section or the recap, for example. So, are you likewise a bit of a Proustian?

JB: No, Jeremy is the official Proust reader of the duo; he does all that. But I did read [Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s] The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I found a few references in it that were helpful… I'm just kidding…

NG: That'll be good fodder for the comments…

JB: No, but you mention color. This music – this French repertoire – is one where the word “color” comes up all the time; it’s all about nuance and color, and so much of what makes this music great is in the subtle things. You’re always walking a fine line trying to find that subtlety – you don’t want to hit people over the head with it. So much of it is nuance – which is a French word, of course. We were talking about the overall narrative in the music, but sometimes this repertoire is all about dwelling in the moment, enjoying the amazing color changes for what they are in that moment. This is different from a lot of Germanic music, where you’re aware of the structure all the time. I haven’t heard my older recording of the Franck in 20 years, but I do know that over the years I’ve worked hard as a violinist to develop a larger palette of colors on my instrument – figuring out how to have more options at my disposal to reflect what I see in the music; hopefully that evolution is clear if you compare the two.

NG: I’m sure you’d find that comparison interesting – though perhaps a bit frustrating to as well to hear yourself 22 years ago.

JB: Yes, that's why I don't do it [laughs].

NG: I think that we all have that mind set with our earlier work. Well, if I may – one can hear a general difference in the very way that you attack or approach each phrase. In this new recording, one can hear the actual engagement between you and Jeremy – how you or he will set up a particular passage, and the other will feel that energy. There’s just a sense of vibrancy in this new recording of the Franck compared to the earlier one.

JB: We definitely play off of each other – even in the recording session; things can vary a lot from one take to another depending on what happens in that moment. So yes, the synergy between us definitely makes a big difference.

NG: I would also add that the actual sound is just so much more alive. I've had the good fortune of working with [Grammy Award-winning classical producer] Steve Epstein, and I know what a master he is at obtaining rich sound. I read there were moments in the recording session where Steve was constantly moving microphones around to help you get just the right sonority, etc.

JB: For me, the sound of the violin is everything. The sound starts first in my head – and then I try to recreate it. You have to have this idea of sound in your head; you never quite get to it – which is what makes it all the more frustrating when you’re listening to playback. But over the years I’ve found what kind of sound I want in a recording.

When I was younger, and in my earlier recordings, the philosophy of the recording companies was to try to recreate a “concert sound” – trying to recreate what it’s like to sit in an audience and listen to the performance. Sometimes that meant a bit more of a distant sound – and my philosophy on that has definitely changed. I find that because you’re not in a concert hall, you’re missing out in the visual aspect and a lot of the atmospheric things that happen in a hall. I thus prefer a closer sound; I like to feel like I’m sitting on the stage between the artists and am being completely caught up in it – which is different from simply being in a hall. So, yes, I do strive for a different recorded sound now than I was encouraged to get 20 years ago.

NG: One certainly hears that in the two recordings of the Franck Sonata –there's definitely an immediacy in this recording, and in all your more recent recordings. I also wonder about the impact of pop and rock music – and the very “in-your-face” sonority that we’re all used to; if you then go back to a more distant sound of an older classical chamber CD, it can sound a bit weak.

JB: I remember when people used to accuse [violinist] Itzhak Perlman, back in the day, of being too closely mic'd; I think he had this idea a long time ago. Now things are changing – maybe partially because of what we're used to in pop music, I'm not exactly sure about that.

NG: Turning back to the CD, you’ve also made the point that this recording is a bit of a tribute to your principal violin teacher – from the age of twelve – the Russian violinist, Josef Gingold. You’ve called him “the most memorable and significant person” in your musical life – who focused not on volume, but on nuance, subtlety, and color. He was also the one who first introduced you to the Franck Sonata – which you’ve also described as a work that “determines one’s very identity” as a violinist. So, can you talk about some of the ways in which your time working with Gingold still sits within you, and especially in playing this repertory?

JB: Explaining how Gingold still stays with me is a bit like explaining how your parents still stay with you in every day that you live your life. Even though you're not with them every day anymore, they've helped you to become who you are – and they stay with you forever. Gingold, if you've ever heard him play, had the most beautiful sound of any violinist I've ever heard – and to this day, the sweetest, most sincere playing of anyone. That musical value has always stuck with me – it’s what I strive for. His whole approach to making music was from a place of real and utter honesty – never trying to get the audience with some clever little gimmick, but instead always coming from his inner soul. He exposed that quality when he played, and it's one of the great values that a teacher could pass on to student. I try for that, at least.

It’s true that he didn't always talk about volume of sound – although there's a time and a place to play big, and he would sometimes tell me, "Play more, more, more!" But for him, it was all about the subtlety and the nuance, and the use of the bow as your sort of paintbrush – to connect with a different Impressionist analogy; to use the speed of the bow in various ways, and not just to press down and make a bigger sound. I think singers have the same issues: with some singers it feels like are belting all the time because they've been taught that bigger is better. But for me, when I listen to a great Lieder singer or an opera singer, the times they sing softly can be the most memorable moments of the entire performance. And for this music in particular Gingold’s influence is important; although he was born in Russia, he comes out of the Belgian-French violin school: his teacher was [Belgian composer] Eugène Ysaÿe, for whom Franck wrote his Sonata.

NG: Speaking of the Franck Sonata and its connection with Ysaÿe – I also interviewed another Sony-signed violinist, Ray Chen, a young graduate of the Curtis Institute; he too recorded the Franck, and shared the story he heard from his teacher, Aaron Rosand – that the Sonata originally had this underlying narrative of a life story: from a young man in the first movement, to middle age in the middle two movements, to an old man in the last. We all know that the Sonata was written as a wedding present for Ysaÿe, who was sort of like a son to Franck – could even have been a son, from some accounts. But I’m curious, have you ever heard this “life cycle” story as well?

JB: I never heard it spelled out quite like that before – though I guess you could find an argument for it. I'd have to think about that a little bit; but the Sonata “speaks” of so many things, that if you reduce it a simple story line like that, it kinds of limits it. Each movement has elements of that type of arc, and I tend to shy away from making concrete story lines – though sometimes there is merit to it, since you do feel like you’ve been through a lifetime with this piece: there’s a kind of nostalgia, and then a sense of triumph at the end… But you know, in a way that’s similar to almost every great piece of music.

NG: Well, it's strange how stories can arise – according to Ray, this story came through Ysaÿe via his student, Leon Sametini, who was the teacher of Aaron Rosand. Who knows, sometimes stories are just apocryphal…

JB: No, it makes a lot of sense; sometimes we use these stories or analogies to help and inspire us – it stimulates our imagination, and we take it from there. The beauty of this music is that it is abstract and not concrete – unlike, say, movie music, which is usually tied to an exact image. But with this type of music you can really let your imagination go free.

NG: Certainly, there's a lot to be inspired by here – as along with the Franck, we also have violin sonatas Saint-Saëns [No.1 in D-, Op.75] and Ravel [No.2 in G] – which is not heard as much; it’s such a wonderful piece with plenty of great color and terrific harmonies, not least in the bluesy second movement. I’m wondering – now that you’ve had a bit more experience playing in pop and jazz styles – as in your collaboration with trumpeter Chris Botti on your last CD – is it perhaps a bit easier now to approach a jazz-influenced style?

JB: Yes, playing with great jazz musicians has definitely helped me to achieve a feeling of improvisation; then again, no two jazz players are alike either, and there are so many ways to approach the slow movement of the Ravel. I try to take a more subtle approach to the jazz elements of it; there's a “coolness” to the music that I look for. Sometimes this movement can sound a bit vulgar; sometimes we classical musicians think, "Okay, now we're doing jazz, so we’ve gotta really jazz it up." It thus can be played “over the top” or be over-done. In fact, I was once told that Heifetz didn't play this piece because he thought it was a bit vulgar.

NG: Interesting.

JB: I can't verify if that's actually true, but he certainly didn't record it. At any rate, we each have our own approach to this music, but it's an amazing movement. And also, it isn't exactly jazz, it's still Ravel, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s like the Tzigane [‘Concert Rhapsody’ for violin and orchestra or piano] – it’s not actually gypsy music; it’s Ravel’s take on gypsy music. These are all the fun challenges.

NG: Indeed they are – and you’re absolutely right that even with those jazzy glisses and sighs, it’s Ravel all over. Again, it’s a great CD, and I assume that you and Jeremy will be pleased with the response. So, are you already talking about a follow-up recording, or is it too early for that?

JB: I don't know – we'll see if he ever plays with me again [laughs]. His solo career is keeping him so busy right now, that it's hard to steal him away for a collaboration. But I'm very happy for Jeremy; he deserves his great success.

NG: That’s very nice – though I'm sure you guys will be working much more together in the future.

Before we wind up, there are other big things happening for you right now. First, you mentioned film music, and in fact you have another film soundtrack coming out, a big-budget Chinese film called Flowers of War, with music by Quigang Chen [most well-known for his role as music director at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing]. The music, from what I’ve read, features a mix of Western and Chinese instruments and instrumental styles; how has this project been to work on?

JB: It really wasn’t that big of a time commitment – I went into the studio, saw a few clips of the film; Quigang showed me the music, and I played it. He tried to describe the mood of what was going on. I have yet to see the film, so it'll be interesting to see how he fits the music in. My concern at the time – which I voiced to him – is that I cannot imitate or sound like an authentic Chinese violinist; I wanted to make that clear to him, because if that’s what he wanted, I thought he should find someone who could do that better than me. But he explained that that was not what he wanted; he wanted my take on it. The movie itself seems to focus on a Western-Eastern connection, so hopefully I won't be criticized for not sounding “authentic” – since it’s not what he had in mind. It was very beautiful music, and I look forward to seeing how it fits into the film.

NG: I understand that the main protagonist [played by actor Christian Bale] is an American; but the soundtrack includes the erhu [a tradition 2-string Chinese “violin”] among other Chinese instruments, so it does have the more traditional sound as a contrast to your playing. Clearly, when anyone is doing a film score that has a solo violin part, they’d love to see your name attached to it – after your big success with John Corigliano [on the Academy Award-winning score of Red Violin]. At any rate, it will no doubt be a well-publicized film, given its high profile and big budget, and I'll look forward to seeing it.

Finally, Josh, another story, which I’d love to at least touch on, is in fact big news in the classical music world; it’s something I actually found quite amazing when I saw it: your recent appointment as music director of the esteemed British chamber orchestra, St. Martin-in-the Fields. Can you give us a little sense of how this offer came about, and especially what plans you have for your first three years working as their leader?

JB: I’ve actually been playing with them for about eight years, so we’ve gotten to know each other quite well. Of course, their music director had been Sir Neville Marriner for 52 years, but they’ve had some significant, regular guest artists: [violinist] Iona Brown did a lot of directing for them for many years; others, like the great pianist Murray Perahia, does a lot with them – and I am another of those who has been a regular collaborator. So, last year when they asked me to be their music director, I was very pleased – because I always felt we had good chemistry, and the results were very satisfying. This is a new direction for me, since I get to work on symphonic repertoire – which is something I’ve always wanted to do. We’re actually recording the Fourth [in Bb, Op.60] and Seventh [in A, Op.92] Symphonies by Beethoven in the spring – which is very exciting. I’ve always loved chamber music, and this brings everything together – since it’s basically as chamber music that we approach it. I now get to have my take on these great symphonic pieces that I’ve known my entire life, and that’s really great!

NG: I once saw you conduct the Verbier Festival Orchestra – which you conducted from the violin; will you be likewise conducting while playing, or are you going to be standing up on a podium with a baton at times?

JB: When I play concertos, I stand and conduct while playing; and even with the symphonies I’ll be sitting in the first violin chair – the concertmaster’s chair – and alternate playing and conducting, trying to manage both. But they’re used to that, and this orchestra knows how to respond to that kind of direction; it really engages everyone in a way that feels like you’re playing chamber music, like a string quartet. This is actually how I think all orchestras should play, even if there is a conductor standing there. A good conductor allows an orchestra to feel engaged in this chamber manner, and not just has them following a stick.

NG: Indeed, and I very much looking forward to hearing those recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. Again, congratulations on all that you're doing – especially on the new album; and hopefully we'll get a chance to talk with you again soon.

JB: Thanks so much for your time.

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