Q & A: Joshua Bell on Cadenzas, Conducting and Crossover

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Joshua Bell on Cadenzas, Conducting and Crossover
The fresh-faced violinist opens the Caramoor Festival on June 24 performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and conductor Peter Oundjian. He talked to PlaybillArts about writing his own cadenzas, why he dislikes modernist music and why crossover is a not such a bad thing.

How do you keep pieces like the Mendelssohn Concerto, which you've played hundreds of times, from getting stale?

It's a state of mind; you have to keep rethinking and re-evaluating the music. Otherwise you can get in a rut and play it like you've played it for years or the way you've heard it on recordings. You can end up recycling ideas. You have to be disciplined and re-approach the work every time you play it. I dropped the Mendelssohn for a few years, then fell in love with it again.

You write your own cadenzas?

Yes. I kept the Mendelssohn fresh by recording my own cadenza, which is quite radical, as Mendelssohn had already written one. I don't know anyone else who has written their own cadenza for this concerto and it can be shocking for those who are used to hearing the original.

My heros, like Kreisler, wrote their own cadenzas for the Beethoven and Brahms, for example. I started writing my own at 20, first for the Brahms then for all the violin concertos. For the most part violinists still borrow cadenzas, but I think it's great to write your own. That's how it used to be and it makes the piece more personal, but we've become more specialized now. Composers compose and conductors conduct.

So will you compose a full work?

I am a wannabe composer, so writing cadenzas is my stepping stone. I've fooled around with writing other things, but I haven't the time or confidence yet to write a full work. I would first write a solo violin sonata and style-wise, Eugene Ysaêe, who wrote six amazing violin sonatas inspired by Bach, would be my inspiration. People sometimes say my cadenzas sound a little like Ysaêe.

What contemporary composers do you like?

It's hard to find ones that really speak to me, as I gravitate towards melodic and in some ways old-fashioned composers; those who use melody and beauty. I'm not a fan of modernism; a lot of the 12-tone music doesn't speak to me. I can recognize intellectually that it's interesting and provocative, but for me it's not enough. I get yelled at for that, but different people have different tastes. With a new work I want to be moved, like I am with Beethoven. Why should I expect any less?

Have you commissioned any works recently?

Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran wrote me a wonderful concerto. I also just recorded an amazing 40-minute violin concerto with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony, which should be released this year. It was written by John Corigliano, based on the score from the 1999 film The Red Violin [whose soundtrack featured Bell]. I have also just discovered 14-year-old Jay Greenberg, who shows spectacular promise.

You've been doing a bit of conducting lately?

I've been leading the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra a fair amount. I am getting my feet wet in that department, and recently conducted Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with them. Peter Oundjian was a wonderful violinist and has become a great conductor, so I'm looking forward to playing with him at Caramoor.

You've done some eclectic projects. Do you think the classical industry complains too much about 'crossover' projects such as your recording with classical/jazz/bluegrass bass player Edgar Meyer?

Anyone who is going to denigrate Edgar Meyer, who I've known since I was 13, is an idiot. I learned a lot from that project, which was labeled crossover. I feel very proud of the collaboration. Crossover projects do have to be done with thought and care however, so it's not about mixing two worlds in a random way.

Tell me about your upcoming projects.

My newest album is called Voice of the Violin and it's a follow up to Romance of the Violin, which people also called crossover. It's not, although it did reach a crossover audience, which I'm pleased about. Voice of the Violin features works by composers including Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bizet, with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and soprano Anna Netrebko. It will be released on Sony in September.

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