He is known as the “poet of the violin” for his ability to coax meltingly haunting notes as well as lively, foot-stomping beats.
During a recent musical stopover in the capital, Weekend Review spoke to the 45-year-old virtuoso about performing in the Middle East, his passion for music education and, of course, the now-infamous 2007 Washington subway performance.
“Abu Dhabi was amazing. It has such a great mix of cultures … it was interesting for me to see that crazy mix of people, cultures and ethnicities … even though I’m from New York, which has a pretty good mix there too,” Bell said laughingly.
Bell, along with the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek, performed in the capital for the first time as part of the 2013 Abu Dhabi Festival, which ended on March 31.
The concert featured Bedrich Smetana’s “Vltava” from “Ma vlast”, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1.
“I performed with them [the orchestra] in the past and it was nice working with them again. Since this was my first concert in Abu Dhabi, I decided to play Bruch’s violin concerto, which is one of the big romantic pieces, because it is a very accessible and so easy to love,” Bell, who performs with a 300-year-old Huberman Stradivarius, explained.
While his meteoritic career seems ever bright, Bell had other interests growing up, including computer games and tennis in a household that included two sisters, in Bloomington, Indiana. When Bell was 4 years old, his parents, both mental-health professionals, noticed him plucking tunes with rubber bands he had stretched around the handles of his dresser drawers. Shortly thereafter, they gave him his first violin.
By the time he was 12 years old, Bell was serious about the instrument, mainly due to the inspiration of renowned violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold, who had become his teacher and mentor. Two years later, Joshua came to national attention in the United Station in his highly acclaimed debut with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His Carnegie Hall debut, an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a notable recording contract soon followed, further confirming his presence in the musical world.
Since then, Bell has recorded over 40 albums in a career that spans more than 30 years as a soloist, chamber musician and recording artist.
It was those skills and experience that were highlighted during his exquisite performance, which left audience members buzzing for days after.
“Maybe one day once I have built an audience here [Abu Dhabi], I can play some more experimental pieces ... or even do collaborations with other artists … to create something out of the box,” Bell said.
In fact, Bell is known for his extensive range of collaborations with musical icons ranging from Sting to Regina Spektor. He also recorded a ballad with Latin music superstar Gloria Estephan just ahead of his Abu Dhabi visit.
Bell’s performance can also be heard on various Hollywood film soundtracks, including for “The Red Violin”, which won composer John Corigliano an Oscar.
“I enjoy collaborations ... it is always fascinating to see how different styles and sounds come together to create something completely new,” he said.
The Grammy award-winning international virtuoso also noted that among his favourite collaborations have been with school pupils as part of his music education efforts.
He organised a special workshop for students of the American Community School ahead of his performance at the Emirates Palace Hotel. “That was actually a lot of fun … one of the [pupils] had contacted me through my website asking if it would be possible to visit the school ... I passed on the message to the powers that be and was so glad that it worked out,” Bell said.
For similar efforts, he was honoured by Education Through Music in 2009. “Education Through Music brings music programmes to schools that do not have them ... because in the US, music and arts programmes are one of the first things that get stopped during budget cuts,” Bell said. “I love interacting with children ... it is always such fun being around them ... they make you smile with their questions and attitudes.”
And as if his schedule was not packed enough, Bell also recently accepted the prestigious position of Music Director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He is the first person and first American to hold this post since Sir Neville Marriner formed the orchestra in 1958.
“I have built a rather good relationship with the orchestra for several years and when Sir Neville retired, they asked me to step in and I was happy to do so,” Bell said.
The orchestra released its first recording under Bell, as Music Director and conductor, in February 2013. The record featured performances of Beethoven’s 4th and 7th symphonies. There are plans to eventually perform and record all the Beethoven symphonies.
“Feedback for the record has been good since its release — at least I think it’s good — they only send me the positive reviews,” Bell said.
Inevitably, our talk turned to Bell’s subway performance as part of a special report by the Washington Post in 2007. “Wow ... it is amazing how people in every country I visit want to ask me about it, even all these years later ... it is quite fascinating how far and wide it has reached,” he said.
Performing incognito in a Washington subway with a Stradivarius violin, Joshua received barely any response from busy commuters and made a grand total of $30 (Dh110) in tips. The experiment became one of 21st-century music’s most debated topic and the story earned a Pulitzer Prize.
“I wasn’t discouraged by it ... actually, I feel it accentuated the importance of having a captive audience that can engage with the music being performed,” the violinist said. “I do not think that the people on that subway did not appreciate classical music. They were busy in their own world and they need to be given time and space to appreciate something like this. I mean, you can put a Renoir painting in the middle of a busy café and no one will pay any attention to it but that does not mean those people do not appreciate art.”
Speaking of appreciation of art, Joshua highlighted how impressed he has been by the ever-increasing art and cultural presence in the region.
“Along with Abu Dhabi, where I had a fantastic time — I even managed to see Placido Domingo’s concert and have dinner with him afterwards. I was also in Oman in December to inaugurate the Royal Opera House Muscat, which was beautiful,” Bell said. “I am getting a taste of the region and I definitely want to come back to both cities and explore new locations. I am already discussing that possibility with my manager. The Middle East has become a must-perform location for touring artists.”
Despite an impressive 250-day travelling schedule, which has included performances for President Barack Obama at Ford’s Theatre and at the White House as well as for Vice-President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, when asked which the greatest audience he had performed for is, he said, “Home and my family, for sure. Do not get me wrong, I have had many once in-a-lifetime opportunities and am grateful for everything I have achieved. But my schedule keeps me away from my children for so long that all I want to do is be with them.” (Bell is the proud father of a five-year old and twin three-year-olds.)
“Sometimes, my assistant brings my eldest to visit me when I am on tour and we have fun catching up. Hopefully when they are all older, we could do that more often,” he added.
Bell regretted not being able to spend more time in Abu Dhabi but he will be back — maybe with children in tow.
“Usually I would prefer to spend any vacation at home, relaxing in bed with them, but I would love to bring them here for a holiday, take in the sights in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I stayed in the Atlantis [The Palm] hotel before heading to Abu Dhabi. I remember looking around and thinking my children would have a blast here,” Bell said.
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.
Interview with Jiri Belohlavek, conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Despite having a fleeting taste of Abu Dhabi and the capital’s appreciation for culture and art, Jiri Belohlavek, conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, is ready for more.
Among the factors that impressed Belohlavek were the city’s quality of life and the audience’s reactions to Placido Domingo’s performance on March 20 as part of the Abu Dhabi festival. The Abu Dhabi Festival concluded on March 31.
“The audience was so receptive during his concert, it made me look forward to our performance with Joshua [Bell] and Bryn Terfel [Welsh bass baritone opera singer],” the Czech conductor said.
The orchestra also performed the world premiere of Bechara Al Khoury’s “Poeme Orientale”, which was specially commissioned by the festival’s organisers.
“During the festival, the pieces selected were based on a mutual agreement between myself and the participating artist after considering factors such as venue and audience. Also, if an organiser requested anything specific we had to include it in the programme,” Belohlavek explained.
He noted that among his concerns was whether members of the public would connect to the pieces chosen. “Some of the pieces we performed are by Czech composers, so they are a part of our blood, which made it exciting for us,” Belohlavek said. “Because the audience was new for us, it made the performances more challenging overall. We had to be careful in our selections to make sure people could connect to the pieces.”
However, the world-renowned conductor noted that he was looking forward to returning to the capital and the region.
“We had a fantastic experience during the festival and I would love to return with the orchestra and develop further ties with Abu Dhabi and the region in general,” Belohlavek said.