Back Story: Joshua Bell, Music Man
In 2007, acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell was recruited by the Washington Post for an experiment: If Bell were to pose as a busker during rush hour in a busy Washington, D.C., Metro station, would anyone stop and listen?
As it turned out, only seven people stopped during Bell’s 45-minute performance. In 2014, he played an encore of sorts, performing in front of an appreciative crowd at Washington’s Union Station, a National Treasure of the National Trust.
Before the release of his new album, For the Love of Brahms (recorded with The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Steven Isserlis, and Jeremy Denk), Preservation spoke with Bell about historic places. Here’s an extended version of his interview from our Fall 2016 issue.
How did your Union Station show go?
I thought one way to kind of put some closure on that whole [Post] story was to do it one more time and play in a public space, and this time, tell people about it ahead of time, and also bring in some young people to highlight the importance of music education. I had no idea if there would be 20 people or 50 people. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun because 2,000 people or so showed up, and it turned into a real show and there was a great energy and atmosphere. So I had a blast the second time around.
Was it a good space for a performance?
Actually, yeah. Union Station is a beautiful space. We did amplify so we weren’t using a totally natural acoustical experience, although I think it might have sounded OK [without that], except for the noise from people bustling about.
Does the architecture of a space ever influence the way you play?
Well, in my line of business, certainly the architecture of a space influences the sound, which then influences the way we play. How you articulate your sounds onstage varies depending on what you think the audience is taking in. So if it’s a very dry space it may influence your tempo. If it’s a very boomy, cavernous space I might play differently. Just like an actor in a play, you know, the way you project your voice does depend on what the space is like.
In a more metaphysical sense, playing in Carnegie Hall with its beautiful architecture and its great history affects the way you play, just in that it inspires you and you feel like you’re in a special place.
Aside from Carnegie Hall, do you have any historic places that you’ve played at that really stand out for you?
I’ve gotten to play in some very odd and interesting environments. I played outdoors on Red Square in Moscow. I’ve played in an old Greek amphitheater outdoors in Athens, and the White House, which has a certain history and interesting atmosphere, just being there.
I understand that you’re from Bloomington, Indiana. Are there any historic places in your home state that are important to you?
I happen to have grown up in the oldest farmhouse in [Bloomington], built in 1830, so I kind of grew up with a little piece of history.
How does history inform your work?
The violin that I play on was made in 1713 by Stradivari, so every time I open up my violin case it’s like a piece of history. My whole lifestyle is dealing with things that are being preserved from other eras. The music that I play, from Beethoven to Mozart to Bach, those are all pieces of history as well.
Can you tell me a little bit about your new album of Brahms pieces that you have coming out shortly?
Brahms is one of the great geniuses of the 19th century. I recorded two sort of iconic works, and one, the double concerto of Brahms, is a very unusual piece in that it’s a concerto for two instruments instead of one. It’s all about friendship—he wrote it as sort of a peace offering to his great friend, the violinist Joachim, and I happen to be playing it with one of my best friends that I’ve known for 30 years, the cellist Steven Isserlis. On the second half we do an early Brahms trio and its original version, also with another great friend, Jeremy Denk. So we’re bringing together friends playing great music, which is Brahms.
You live in New York. What are some of your favorite old places in the city?
When I wake up every morning, I look out on my favorite building in New York, the Flatiron Building. I can also see the Empire State Building from my rooftop, which for me just represents New York. I’m always very proud walking home and seeing the grandeur of that building and what it represents.