Superstar violinist Joshua Bell is in town this week for two marathon performances at the Hollywood Bowl. I say marathon, not because the concerts will be extra long–there’s curfew at the Bowl, after all–but because the program includes not one, but TWO concerti featuring Bell as soloist. From the standard repertoire, the Mendelssohn e-minor Violin Concerto closes the concert. On the first half, it’s the West Coast premiere of Edgar Meyer’s Double Concerto for Violin and Bass. Joining Joshua Bell is the double-bassist/composer Edgar Meyer. The work received its first performance just last week at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then Bell and Meyer headed to the Aspen Music Festival for the concerto’s second performance. Tomorrow and Thursday they’ll play it here at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic, conducted by Ludovic Morlot.
Earlier today, I caught up with Joshua Bell at the Bowl. Here’s part of our conversation.
JB: I met Edgar when I was about 13 and we started playing together. We played flashy Wieniawski violin duos that he played one of the parts on the bass. He was a phenomenon. No one had ever done on the bass what he was attempting to do and succeeding at doing. So, I feel very fortunate to have been in the right place to be able to get to know him and over the years, we’ve done a lot of projects together: he’s brought me into his bluegrass world a bit and we did an album called Short Trip Home with Sam Bush and Mike Marshall and I’ve commissioned a few pieces from him and this is the latest.
BL: This new concerto hasn’t been around that long. You’ve had just a couple of months basically with the piece, right?
JB: A few weeks actually! He finished the piece about three weeks ago and we premiered it a couple weeks later at Tanglewood. So, it’s still fresh and it’s fun to approach it anew with each orchestra. In the rehearsals, I find new things in the piece and I’m still developing with it.
BL: What’s it like to have this crash course sort of experience? To learn a new piece in such a short amount of time, knowing you have to put it on stage at Tanglewood, Aspen, and now here at the Hollywood Bowl in just a matter of weeks?
JB: Well, it’s scary. A month ago when people said, “Hey, I’m coming to your concert at Tanglewood with the premiere,” I said “Well, I haven’t even started learning it yet!” That is scary. And you think there’s no way this is going to happen, there’s no way I’m going to learn it. But then by the time the concert comes around and you’ve put the time in, then you have to really own it and it shouldn’t feel like it’s the first time. The good thing is that the composer is here and he’s playing the piece, so you have this reference all the time.
BL: At Tanglewood you played Ravel’s Tzigane on the same concert as this new Meyer Concerto. Here at the Bowl you’ll perform the Mendelssohn Concerto in addition to the Meyer Concerto. That’s a lot of work for yourself!
JB: It is a lot of work–I’m not used to playing two concertos on one program. It’ll be nice for the Mendelssohn that I will have gotten the Meyer done and out of the way and my nerves will be a little bit relieved and I can just enjoy a piece that I know so well. But it is tiring and this is the only place that I’m doing two complete concertos, but when the LA Phil asked me to do it, I thought it’s a great opportunity, why not?
BL: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the Mendelssohn Concerto. I hesitate to ask how many times you’ve performed it. I’m sure it’s a three-digit number, right?
JB: Oh certainly! I don’t even know–maybe 500 times? I’ve played it since I was 12 years old and I keep falling in love with it again and again. I know it sounds corny to say that, but it’s really true. The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is often referred to as the perfect violin concerto because it is so beautifully written for the instrument. The proportions and everything about the piece is just so perfect. There have been some years when I’ve dropped it [from my repertoire list]–I just wanted to give it a little bit of a break–but then after a couple of years I’ll fall in love with it again, realizing what a great piece it is. It’s only detriment is that it’s so well-written that it’s often the first big concerto done by young people, so we musicians think of it as being this student piece everyone’s hacking away at for their first try at a big concerto and you forget the difficulties of really playing it well and sometimes because of that you forget that it really is one of the great works.
BL: How are you enjoying life as a music director?
JB: Oh, it’s been great. My association with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields has been going on for several years, but when they asked me to be music director I was very excited. I’m getting to explore all kinds of great stuff: we just recorded the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven and we’re moving on the First and Fifth next year. It’s an amazing experience for me and the perfect way for me to get to start doing this sort of repertoire. The way they approach things is like chamber music and I lead from the first violin stand and so I’m kind of half conductor half player in the orchestra.
BL: Do own a baton?
JB: I do not own a baton. Even when I get in front of the orchestra without my violin I don’t use a baton. I might try it–I’ve taken a couple of lessons here and there, but there are so many ways of conducting and a lot of it is done by seeing what works and it depends on the orchestra. I’ve come up with a body language with this orchestra that they really know what I have in mind. The important thing for all of us musicians is that we find something to keep you growing, because you can sit there and play the 10 big concertos and probably make a decent living and that would be it, but I think you would suffer if you did that.
JB: Well, I have to say I fell in love with food first. That was through my parents and of course food and wine go hand in hand. My parents first took me to a three-star Michelin restaurant in France when I was there for a master class and that was the beginning of my journey in food. Wine is sort of, I’m catching up with wine through that, but I call myself a “foodie” and make a point of finding great restaurants. And as I’m doing that I’m starting to learn more about wine. But I’m still learning–I’m certainly no expert. Wine is a lot like music in that you can enjoy it just by drinking it and enjoying it on the top level and then the more you get into it, the more you get out of it. Music and wine, you want to try them again and again and you learn more about them when you get inside them.