NEW YORK — In his Flatiron studio, Joshua Bell is surrounded by books, music, and a collection of composers’ autographs.
With lustrous wood floors, minimalist art, and a grand piano, it’s a reflection of the superstar violinist’s relaxed elegance — he gutted the space and designed the interior himself to create the perfect spot for private concerts.
Bell has taken up conducting, and is now music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. He spoke recently about conducting, his violins, and crossover music.
Q. As you were playing with various conductors did you say to yourself, ‘‘I can do better than that?’’
A. Many, many times. There are those inspiring conductors who make me want to be like that, and then there are those where I feel I can actually do better. I’ve probably played with hundreds of conductors and I’ve learned from the bad ones and the good ones.
Q. When was the first time you conducted?
A. It grew out of playing. With the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I started leading them with just strings, and then it started building.
Q. Your first album with the group is Beethoven Symphonies 4 and 7. There is already so much recorded Beethoven, so is this a safe choice or a daring choice?
A. It’s a little more on the daring side because it’s like going in with your first job as an actor doing Hamlet. I wanted to make a statement with this new kind of sound of the orchestra, very visceral, with energy that I don’t see very often.
Q. The Stradivarius you play is not your first?
A. It’s actually my third one — I got my first Strad when I was 19. It was relatively inexpensive; it’s still like buying a house, but not like buying a mansion.
Q. You now play a Strad called the ‘‘Gibson ex- Huberman.’’ How did you acquire it?
A. The violin was stolen twice from Bronislaw Huberman, who was a hero, a great violinist who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust by getting them visas to leave Germany. The first time it was recovered quickly, but the second time the insurance was paid out. On his deathbed 50 years later, the thief confessed to his wife. I bought it for nearly $4 million from the violinist who acquired it from the insurance company.
Q. You played on a Scarlett Johansson song — so you don’t mind crossover?
A. A friend of mine, J. Ralph Feat, wrote the song, ‘‘Before My Time’’ — it was nominated for an Oscar — and asked me to play. It’s music — I really don’t think of it as crossover.
Q. So, you’d do other projects?
A. Sure. I was in Miami with the Cleveland Orchestra, but during the day I went to the studio of Gloria Estefan — they wanted me to do this duet on the new album.