My Soapbox: Joshua Bell on the arts and Cincinnati
When I realized that my assignment was to interview Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist, the first thing I did was call my mother, a classical music lover.
After Bell, 44, spoke about how much classical music means to him, I couldn’t stop myself. I told him my mother was a huge fan. He sounded genuinely flattered.
After 30 years of achieving mounting success as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and music director, Bell has every right to be arrogant, but he’s not. He plays, not for more honors and awards, but for the joy of sharing his love of music with the world, including his three young sons.
Bell took some time to chat with Soapbox
via telephone about his career as a professional musician. The Hoosier native returns to the Midwest to perform with the Cincinnati Pops at Cincinnati Music Hall Friday, Sept. 21, and Saturday, Sept. 22.
Q: You’re a Hoosier born and bred. What’s it like to come back to the Midwest?
A: Well, I was born in Indiana and even though I've lived in New York City for the last 20 years, I still feel like Indiana is my home. I’m still an Indianapolis Colts fan; sorry Bengals. I still love coming home to the Midwest, and Cincinnati is quite close, so it is a nice opportunity to have my family come to hear me play. I have a long history with Cincinnati; I think I first played a Cincinnati recital when I was maybe 16 years old.
Q: So last year, you performed in Cincinnati as part of the finale of the inaugural Constella Festival. Why did you choose to lend your clout to a new event?
A: I happened to be a friend of Tatiana Berman
(Constella founder). They were just starting, but because she is a friend, and she seemed to have high hopes for the Festival, I told her I would come. In the end, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the venue that we played. I thought it was a beautiful place to play. I hope they are continuing to be successful.
Q: What was that experience like? What is your clearest memory from the performance and experience?
A: I just remembered the church where we played having very, very beautiful acoustics. I remember the audience being very warm, so it was overall a very positive experience.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been back to the Cincinnati Symphony. The last time I was there, was actually under very terrible circumstances. I played the first concert and then the next morning, I found out my father had gotten very ill, and I had to cancel the last couple of concerts. And my father passed away that week, so I never finished my last series of engagements—that was already 10 years ago, so I’m happy to finally be coming back.
Q: You describe yourself as unconventional—what inspires you to do things like play violin in a subway? In what other ways do you see yourself as unconventional?
A: I like taking risks. I think in in general being a little bit out of your comfort zone can often lead to interesting fate. So that’s why I often play music with people who are not in my musical genre. I enjoy playing with bluegrass and jazz musicians. It’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s rewarding.
The subway thing was something I did just for kicks. And it turns out that it actually took on a proportion that I never dreamed. I just came back from Africa, and even in Africa, that’s all anybody wanted to ask me about-- the metro experiment from five years ago. So it really kind of reached a lot of people. So I guess I’m glad I did it, although I’m a little bit tired of the subject. I don’t want to be known as being the guy from the metro.
Q: What do you see as the role of a classical musician in American culture?
A: For me, it is important for me that classical music stays as part of our culture. So-called classical or serious music has been part of our culture for hundreds of years. It’s as important as classic literature is to reading.
I’m biased, but I think classical music is the most profound and highest art form. It’s very important for music to be a part of everyone’s lives. My role as a classical musician is to try to make sure that it reaches as many people as possible. And that starts with kids in the schools.
Q: SoapboxMedia profiles a lot of entrepreneurs, and in the world of classical music, a soloist operates a lot like an entrepreneur. What role do you think innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit play in your career?
A: I think part of the thing is that classical music is very old; we are playing music of very old and dead people all of the time. But the music is still incredibly relevant to our time. It addresses human emotions that will always be there and always have been.
But I think it is as important today that we roll with technology and don’t get stuck in an older time, in every single way. It is important for us to be innovative in the ways that we bring classical music to new audiences.
I don’t think we need to add drum beats to Beethoven symphonies to make it accessible. We don’t need to do that; the music stands on its own. But sometimes the way we present it, whether it is through online streaming, or through what they are doing with operas showing them in movie theaters live around the country, things like that, I think it is very important for people to keep finding innovative ways to keep up with the technology and the times.
Q: What is Cincinnati’s reputation in the classical music world?
A: Well, Cincinnati has always been a very artistic community. They have a long history of putting on concerts, chamber music and recitals. And of course the symphony is definitely a top orchestra.
They have a history of important music directors. Including even my teacher’s teacher, Eugène Ysaÿe. A hundred years ago, he was actually one of the greatest violinists that ever lived, but he was also a conductor at Cincinnati. The symphony has always had a very, very high worldwide reputation. It’s something to be very, very proud of as a community. And the arts are something that the community should be proud of. The Cincinnati Symphony is as an important ambassador to the city as the Cincinnati Reds, you know, or the Bengals. And I think the city should take as much pride in their orchestra as they do in their sports teams. And Cincinnati seems to be doing very well in that regard.
Q: Speaking of sports, do you still play tennis and who is your favorite player?
A: Well right now, I’m in New York and the US Open is happening and I think Federer is playing. I happen to like Roger Federer a lot. I like his elegant way of playing; it makes it very beautiful to watch. So he’s probably my favorite. Now that he is getting older, I’m particularly rooting for him—I want to see him continue to beat the younger guys. I guess ‘cause I’m getting older, I sympathize.
But unfortunately it is the opening night of NFL football, too. Football is my favorite spectator sport, so I’m going to be watching the Giants-Cowboys game.
Q: Do any of your kids play violin?
A: My five year old, the oldest one, plays the cello. The twins are two and a half [years old], and they haven’t started anything yet.
Q: Are you going to have them play music?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t imagine life without music, so I wouldn’t want my kids to imagine life without music either.