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Joshua Bell: A Virtuoso with a Passion for Technology, Football and More

Marc Horn
Joshua Bell

Violinist Joshua Bell is in town playing Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra, where he made his first major concert debut at the age of 14. Now, over 35 years later, he’s a celebrated soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and conductor.  And the man, who at the age of three first made music by stretching rubber bands across his dresser, is still fascinated by the science of sounds and music's power to change lives.  

Joshua Bell is a busy man.  He plays in recital and in  concert with orchestras all over the world, and is the music director of the touring and chamber ensemble,  Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  He performs on movie soundtracks,  commissions new music for violin,  and frequently collaborates with musicians  in classical and other genres.

He performs Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No. 2 with The Philadelphia Orchestra on Thursday, February 15 at 7:30,  Friday,  February 16 at 2:00, and Sunday, February 18 at 2:00.  

Backstage at the Kimmel Center, he chatted with WRTI's Susan Lewis. 

Q: All these collaborations with musicians in the classical field and non-classical genres -- what do they  do to inform your playing?

A: Well I learn a lot from every musician I work with.  I don't consciously  seek out  crossover projects and things like that. To me, music is music. There are so many great musicians out there.

Whether it's working with Chick Corea or Branford Marsalis or Edgar Meyer  --  the great double bass player from the bluegrass world.  I’ve commissioned him to write several pieces for me; most recently, I’m going on tour with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with his piece Overture, he wrote for us. His music crosses all boundaries.

I’ve learned a lot from him and from others about rhythm and improvisation.  Even playing with jazz musicians or bluegrass musicians, hearing them improvise, it actually helps with your classical music. A lot of this music - even the Wieniawski – it’s improvisation. Even though you’re not improvising notes, you have to play with the improvised spirit. …   It’s  all part of being a musician.

Q: You’re also involved in some very cool technology  projects. 

I’ve always been intrigued by new technologies.  I’ve been involved in electronic instruments.  And now, most recently, a violin sample  by a company called Embertone, which has created a set of violin samples which basically gives you an instrument based on my Stradivarius and my playing. I’ve done every single possible sound you can imagine programmed into a computer, where you can access it and actually create performances based on that.  

So, for film music demo or something like -- if Edgar Meyer writes me a piece of music now, he can feed it into that, and give it to me, so I can hear almost what I would sound like playing the piece.

Q: It’s a keyboard that sounds like a violin - it's amazing that it can do that.

A: Yeah, well, technology is amazing.  I don’t mean to replace live musicians. Someone sent me a sample of a Mendelssohn violin concerto.  It wasn't the way have I would interpreted it. But it’s incredibly realistic sounding. They used  slurring together notes and different articulations when they wanted shorter notes…

I spent several days sampling everything I could think of from harmonics to playing over the fingerboard to playing rough, to playing  soft, loud. But I’m always the first to jump at new technologies.  I enjoy it.

Q: Well, in a way,  I understand your first instrument was rubber bands on a dresser, and you’ve come full spectrum with all the ways you can make music!

A: Well, I never went back to the rubber bands! But that’s how I started on my dresser drawers when I was three years old.… That was science really. I was fascinated by pitch and why, when I would open my drawers to stretch the band, I would get different pitches.  I was fascinated by that.  I'm still fascinated by the puzzle of the violin; it’s a constant puzzle, trying to figure out how to play this darn thing.  

Q: What’s the thing you're most passionate about in music today?

A: I’m very passionate about getting young people turned on to music.  I’m involved in educational projects like Education through Music, which is an organization that’s now putting instruments and whole music programs into schools that had none at all. Inner city schools, challenged kids because of their economic backgrounds, they’ve now leapfrogged other schools. And they’re having incredible music programs and it’s transformed their lives.

This I really believe in. I try to raise money for it. I try to go myself into schools. I love that, and seeing what music does for these kids.  I really believe in music education, and try to profess my enthusiasm for that.   I think all people should make sure that music is in the schools. There’s no better teaching tool. Music and art are so much a part of what it means to be a human being. 

Q: Do you have any time for fun things besides music?

A: Oh yeah, I’m a little bit in depression now after football  season is over.  I was very excited about the Eagles!  I watched so much football.   I’m just glued Sundays, and now, Mondays and Thursdays.  I just love the sport.… Very happy for the Eagles. It was so exciting to see that!

I play some sports myself - tennis, basketball.  I do many other things. It’s not just music.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.