Famed violinist Joshua Bell was hopping into a taxi pointed toward his doctor’s office when we caught up with him in New York by phone this week, less than two days before he was scheduled to board a plane pointed toward North Carolina for something of a two-day Brahms-fest.
“How’s it going there with the hurricane?” he asks. Told all is returning to normal in Charlotte, he sighs.
“That’s good to hear. I guess I’m still coming.”
Indeed, Bell and his $4 million Stradivarius will play Brahms’ Violin Concerto in performances by the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh on Thursday night and the Charlotte Symphony on Friday evening. In Charlotte, his performance will be part of the Charlotte Symphony’s Gala Opening Night.
Bell, 50, is one of a small handful of modern classical musicians who’ve become household names, thanks not only to his wizardry with his instrument (the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius has an incredible history), but because he’s embraced super-stardom by appearing in film and TV projects and collaborating with musicians from a wide range of genres. (The story of Bell playing incognito in a Washington, D.C., Metro station brought him to the attention of millions, and his film credits include the big screen’s “The Red Violin” and the small screen’s “Mozart in the Jungle.”) He was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the much-recorded orchestra based in London, in 2011; he’s the second person to hold the post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the orchestra in 1958.
Bell’s visit to Charlotte will be special for a unique reason: a reunion of sorts with Charlotte Symphony Conductor Christopher Warren-Green. The two men crossed paths more than 30 years ago, during a special time in Bell’s life: Warren-Green was guest concertmaster of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London, and Bell was there as an 18-year-old soloist making his very first professional recording.
He spent his cab ride telling us a nail-biter of a travel story, explaining his love affair with Brahms, and laughing over the ups and downs of having a “you only live once” attitude.
“I hate ‘favorite’ questions, but if I had to pick a favorite, I would say the Brahms would probably be at the top of my list, along with the Beethoven” (violin concerto). It manages to have the gravitas of the Beethoven, but it’s slightly more user-friendly for the violinist. It’s more complex but it feels better for the soloist. I’m excited about that. I haven’t played it in a little while.”
When you’re Joshua Bell, how much reworking or digging into these pieces do you have to do ahead of time? Can you pull them out of your cap?
“It’s a piece I’ve done since I was 15 years old, but somehow with the Brahms, you can never take it for granted. You need constant, constant work. It’s so deep in its meaning that every time you look at it you see new things and you look at it in a different way. You have to keep delving, keep exploring with it. I could (play it) just on a day’s notice, even if I haven’t done it in a couple of years – I could do it, but to get it to the level you want it to be, it still requires a lot of work.”
You pull off 150 concerts a year, on top of recording projects and TV and movie collaborations. How do you manage it all?
“I tend to do as much as I think I can manage. I enjoy what I do and I tend to bite off a lot. It’s quite a lot of pressure and a hectic schedule, but I guess I keep asking for it.”
Any favorite travel stories?
“One time, I was playing in a small town in Ohio, and I had a concert the next day in Lansing, Michigan. My flight got canceled because of snow, so at the last minute I found a flight (out of an airport) that was two hours away. I jumped in a taxi and I said, ‘I’ve got to catch this flight – it’s the only flight I could get to make my concert.’ Everything was looking good, and right as we arrived at the Cincinnati airport, I got an alert saying that flight was canceled. I looked at the taxi driver and I said, ‘How do you feel about going to Lansing? It’s a 10 hour drive, but we could make it there for the concert.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We drove for 10 hours through the snow and arrived literally one minute before concert time. I put up the taxi driver in a hotel and invited him to the concert. During intermission I told the audience the story and I made him stand up. It was a little unexpected evening that he could never have anticipated.”
Did you realize when you started your career that you would find yourself on the sets of TV shows and movies? That’s unusual for most classical musicians.
“I really didn’t imagine anything as far as what my career would be like. I’ve been just kind of following where it goes, seeing where it takes me, but I’ve never had any real preconceived notion of what it would be like to do what I do. I’ve always been sort of adventurous; I’ve always jumped into new or different opportunities. I’d say with 95 percent of them I’m glad I ended up doing it. Some, like judging the Miss America pageant, I could have done without. Everybody says, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and I say, ‘You know, you only live once. Let’s try it.’ My tendency is to say yes. I do enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone. I’ve done things in film, I’ve enjoyed TV shows, things where I make little appearances. There are the borderline ones, like playing in the (Washington, D.C.) Metro station, where in some ways I’m glad I did that because it led to a lot of other things and a lot of people come to my concerts who would never have come to my concerts. But on the other hand, it’s been kind of a pain having to talk about it. I can’t believe I just brought it up!”
Do you still get star struck?
“Sometimes. I’ve gotten to do enough in that (Hollywood) field that I’ve become good friends with some celebrities. It depends on my level of respect for a person. Glenn Close is one of my closest friends and we got to know each other through Paul Newman – he became a good friend as well. I’ve played for several presidents and it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, when you’re meeting and playing for presidents, you get a little star struck.”
Finish this sentence: Young aspiring musicians should …
“Sometimes I’ll meet a parent of a kid and my gut tells me that the advice should be - to the kid and the parent - let him go out and play some baseball and do some other things, because I can see they’re way too focused on one thing. And then there are others where I’d totally say, ‘Practice, practice, practice.’”
Charlotte Symphony Gala Concert
Charlotte Symphony Gala Concert
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
DETAILS: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.