As symphony orchestras around the nation launch their fall concerts, many will try to make a big splash by engaging a superstar to play a famous concerto.
The Houston Symphony has turned to violinist Joshua Bell for its season-opening soloist. He’ll perform with the orchestra under maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada at Jones Hall on Saturday.
It doesn’t hurt ticket sales that Bell, 47, has retained an all-American boyish charm.
The violinist, who lives in New York, has recently taken up conducting. For the past four years, he’s been flying to London to lead the prestigious Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields chamber orchestra.
However, Bell’s choice of repertoire for Houston is unusual. Rather than picking a well-known violin concerto, he’s chosen to play “West Side Story Suite” – music by Leonard Bernstein, arranged by William David Brohn.
The one-movement showpiece, which draws on themes from Bernstein’s famous Broadway musical, was created specifically for Bell by Brohn 14 years ago.
Bell recently found time to talk about his life as a virtuoso violinist – speaking from the back of a chauffeured car on his way from his New York home to an engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Q: How many concerts are you playing this year?
A: In the calendar year, it’s probably about 140 concerts. I keep talking about reducing my schedule, but I really enjoy what I do, so I do as much as I can.
Q: How often do you play the “West Side Story Suite?”
A: Not so often – although I played it this summer on tour with the New York Philharmonic in China.
I premiered the piece with the New York Philharmonic in Central Park in 2001, just days before 9/11. The arranger, Bill Brohn, came to me in 2000 and said he’d been working on a violin version of “West Side Story.” I was intrigued because I’m a huge fan of Leonard Bernstein, and I think his “West Side Story” is one of the great American masterpieces of the 20th century.
I’m also a big fan of arrangements. I love how some of the legendary violinists – Fritz Kriesler, Jascha Heifitz and Pablo Sarasate – arranged operatic works for violin.
Q: How are you and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields getting along?
A: If you ask me, I’d say very well, and I hope they’d say the same thing!
This is officially my fourth season, but I’ve known them for many years. It’s probably the most enjoyable thing I’m doing right now because I’m enjoying getting to explore the symphonic repertoire as a conductor. Playing with and directing the orchestra is very satisfying. So far, I think it’s going really well.
Q: Is it true that you built a private concert hall in your New York apartment?
A: Sort of. I wanted to create a salon series in my home, and I’ve done that. I built the space with that in mind. It’s not a concert hall. But it’s a great performance space that I use often for charity events or private house concerts, or even to put on a casual opera performance with some friends. I love having music in my house, and it’s a great way to present music in an intimate setting.
Q: You’ve performed on “Sesame Street,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and you’ve been a judge on the “Miss America Pageant.” Are you attracted to pop-culture celebrity?
A: I wouldn’t put it that way. My motivation isn’t celebrity. But I like taking risks, and I live in the 21st century, so I’m part of that culture.
I’m concerned that classical music shouldn’t become completely separated from modern popular culture. There’s a danger of that. So whenever I had the chance to bring classical music to a more mainstream audience, I jump at that chance. I think it’s important that kids growing up in this country don’t get the idea that classical music is just for an elite few enthusiasts. That’s more my motivation.
Q: You mentioned “taking risks.” Is it true that you’re fond of gambling?
A: I don’t want to exaggerate that! But my mother, my sisters and I take family vacations to Las Vegas. We all have the blackjack bug. I’m not an addicted gambler – but there are stories of famous violinists losing Stradivarius violins to gambling debts. I haven’t done anything like that.
Q: At this point in your career, what haven’t you yet done that you’d like to do?
A: One thing I’ve always wanted to do more is composing. I really enjoy doing arrangements and writing my own cadenzas for all the major concertos, including the “West Side Story Suite.” I haven’t dared yet to write a solo violin sonata, which has been on my mind as something I’d like to do someday.
And I want to go farther down the conducting road, learning the repertoire. Now I’m conducting more with a baton, without leading from the violin. I conducted the L.A. Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl this summer.
Doing what I do, being a concert violinist, there’s a danger in my job that I could get stuck doing the same 10 pieces, and make a pretty good living from it. But I always need a new stimulation.
© Colin Eatock 2015