Recently I sat down with violinist Joshua Bell to talk about being a classical music performer in the 21st century and a star in the age of iPods and auto-tuned performances. Bell, who will perform July 15 at the Hollywood Bowl, talked about how technology can enhance the concert experience, what makes for a great performer and his deepening connection to Israel.
Now 42, Bell has been playing violin since he was 5. He first performed in public at 7, made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 14 and first appeared at the Bowl at 17, performing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. He has appeared at the Bowl since then, by his own reckoning, “maybe 15 times.”
“There’s nothing like it anywhere,” Bell said of the Bowl. “There’s something thrilling about playing for 15,000 people.” The acoustics have improved since the recent renovation, he added, and the giant video screens “make people feel like they’re closer to the action.”
Bell will perform Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” completed in 1880, a work that is not as popular today as the composer’s violin concerto but that in its day was, as Bell put it, a “warhorse” that Bell listened to as a child. Bell’s hero, the violinist Jascha Heifetz, chose the work for his final concert, and Bell characterized the music as “a very emotional, very melodic piece,” with “orchestra colors unusual for a violin concerto.” Being half-Scottish, on his father’s side, and Jewish on his mother’s, Bell joked that the work “brings everything together.”
Although not raised in a religious household, Bell explained that he has a strong connection to Israel. First of all, the violin he plays, a 1713 Stradivarius, is called the Huberman violin, because it was once owned by Bronislaw Huberman, founder of the Israel Philharmonic. That alone garners Bell respect in Israel.
Bell also recently discovered a deeper family connection to the Jewish state. Researchers working on a documentary about Huberman discovered that Bell’s great-grandfather, Shlomo Avigdor (1866-1917), who came to Palestine on the first aliyah in 1891, was buried in Israel, and in May, when Bell performed in Israel, he went for the first time to visit the grave. He was struck by the fact that Avigdor was one of the first pioneers and settlers of the city of Hadera — a piece of Bell’s family history that even his mother was not familiar with, as his great-grandfather had died young. Bell was also moved by seeing inscriptions on the grave that indicated that Avigdor was a cantor.
I asked Bell, who prior to acquiring the Huberman played another Strad, what makes this one so desirable. He compared the feeling for his instrument to the way a person falls in love with his or her mate instead of someone else.
“I fell in love with my violin,” he said, and “within minutes [of playing it], I knew I had to have it. The very same night I tried it, I played at Royal Albert Hall for 8,000 people on the new violin, which is unusual, because it usually takes months to feel comfortable [with a new instrument]. I felt that I didn’t want to play on anything else.”
Bell confessed he has had his ups and downs with his violin — as one does in any relationship — explaining that there are times when he feels he has explored all he can with the instrument, and then others when he falls in love again.
“It’s an ongoing discovery with an instrument like that,” Bell said. “No question that I’m still finding ways of playing and ways of getting colors and sound that I didn’t realize I could do — it’s still happening.”
I asked Bell if he’s had his eye on any other Stradivariuses. He smiled, saying that he’d had his eye on one, and that if it ever became available ...
As for what makes a great performer, Bell said: “The emotion in the music is everything. I don’t think a performer who’s just technically proficient is going to go very far, unless they’re 8 years old, and then they can get away with it just because it’s amazing to see. Even Paganini, who was known for his technical prowess, also made women faint and people cry. ... There are just some people that have this personality that somehow connects with people. I really can’t explain why some people can get up in front of [an audience and] make you want to watch — and you’re riveted.”
As he spoke, I felt he might almost have been talking about his own popularity. But, for the rest of us, it is his willingness to access his emotions on stage and let them speak through his violin — to be both conduit and performer, to stand in the present and in league with the past — that makes his appeal so tangible.
Find out for yourself July 15 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com.