EXCLUSIVE: Joshua Bell on HBO YoungArts Masterclass & Mendelssohn Octet; Washington Metro Reprise & Bach Concertos
With his Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority mulligan miles behind him, Joshua Bell is Skyping with me from his suite at the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai.
As per usual when talking to the press, the world's greatest living violinist is in between rehearsals.
Yes, Bell has traveled to the United Arab Emirates to perform Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 at the Royal Opera House Muscat with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields--the storied British band, founded by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958, that Bell remains the only American to have led as both music director and conductor.
According to the Times of Oman (and despite offering no encore), Sunday night's concert was dubbed a "triumphant return" to the Al Kharjiyah State.
The last time I saw Josh Bell, myself, the violinist-cum-conductor was stage left of the Columbus Club with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten.
This time, however, Bell wasn't hiding his 1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Strad behind a Washington Nationals cap on the streets outside L'Enfant Plaza. Nor was he sawing away at Bruch's G minor concerto.
No, the virtuoso-slash-crusader was leading Bach's first Brandenburg concerto with a ritornello composed entirely of YoungArts grantees, themselves barely alive when Bell/Weingarten tricked more than a thousand WMATA commuters, some seven years ago now.
“Yeah, it was completely different at Union Station,” Bell says of the redux. “One of the lessons from my first experience--the key point perhaps--was that classical music needs a captive, even participatory audience."
"And I [pause], I...needed a real connection.”
Bell continues, more assuredly: "I had this group of [YoungArts] musicians, colleagues really, already formed. And with the Bach record coming out, I thought we'd let people know about the event beforehand--invite all of D.C. to make more of a performance about it."
Pearls after lunch, indeed.
Interestingly enough, for a social experiment aimed directly at his own cult of personality, Bell doesn't see either of his WMATA moments musicaux, quote, "about him, per se."
"The original outing was never a 'me' thing; it wasn't about my ego. Or [Weingarten's]. It was just a good bit of fun."
"Then," he claims, "I didn't take people not recognizing me too personally."
Lest we watch his crowded reprise from my iPhone as a second chance, again, Josh Bell is clear, if a little differential.
"Union Station, this most recent time around, wasn't my chance at any kind of redemption. It was, plain and simple, just another opportunity to perform with this amazing and driven group of young, talented string players."
Rather than plug his best-selling disc of Bach concertos, partitas and selected dance pieces for Sony Classical, here via Skype (at 17 cents a minute, no less), Bell genuinely seems more wont to talk premium cable pedagogy and early Mendelssohn, instead of mass transit stunts and Baroque counterpoint.
"About a year and a half ago, while I was in Miami, HBO approached me about shooting a masterclass. My initial reaction was, like, 'Uhh, I don't do masterclasses.'"
"I've always found the traditional teacher versus student rhetoric, well, none too helpful," he confesses.
"The best masterclasses--at least those I've learned from the most and had the most fun during--have been when there's more of a dialogue."
Apropos, when it came time to select the repertoire for his first HBO special, Joshua Bell: A YoungArts Masterclass, the world's best violinist, one of today's most respected advocates for classical music education, knew precisely what he wanted his discussion to focus upon: Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20.
Reminding me that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy wrote this work at the tender age of 18, Bell says the Octet is "one of his favorite pieces in the classic literature," be it chamber or orchestral or even operatic.
"Rehearsing this work," he points out, "involves all of the important processes in making music. The nuances of balance and blend, intonation and ensemble, [the Octet] proved a perfect piece to showcase the skill sets of my YoungArts colleagues."
Regarding his own expertly tuned set of skills, the internationally laureled musician sounds, above all, thankful.
"I was one of the lucky ones. I had my parents involved, as well as the greats like Josef Gingold," Bell admits, almost to a fault.
"As an 11-year-old, I went to summer camps such as Meadowmount, where I started being around people that were better than me. That was motivation. And there was Marlboro [Music School and Festival], where I would learn chamber music alongside true professionals: Rudolf Serkin, Guarneri String Quartet, etc."
"Every child should be studying an instrument; it is a shame that so many young people are missing out on classical music's many, many gifts," says Bell. "That's why I treasure my work with organizations like Education Through Music, and, ultimately, why I agreed to do the HBO thing."
"After all," Bell laments, "not everyone grows up with a Gingold."
Moreover, raising awareness for the often dreary plight of arts ed in American public schools, Bell says, is as important to him as his first full recording of J.S. Bach.
It's true. Joshua Bell has been making Grammy-winning records since 1988. But before September 30 of this year, he hadn't released an all-Bach disc.
"Although it maybe doesn't feel like it now, this Bach disc with St. Martin for Sony, which the YoungArts ensemble got to see me recording in London, is my first one," he duly notes.
"With Bach, you can't be in a hurry. And as my younger colleagues saw, it's still scary for me to put down something so monolithic as Bach via the permanence of recording."
"26 years later," Bell pauses one final time, "...I guess, finally, I felt ready to do him justice."
Here on the morning after its premiere, the very day HBO announced HBOGo will soon be offered as a stand-alone stream, you, too, can experience his own brand of Bach, Mendelssohn and educational equity on Joshua Bell: A YoungArts Masterclass.
From D.C. to Dubai, of course, Josh Bell still plays his own cadenzas.