For Joshua Bell, the violin speaks to any audience
Violinist Joshua Bell’s next Boston concert will feature pieces by Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Tartini. But his public profile is not restricted to the classical world. Bell, 45, has performed on the TV show “Dancing With the Stars,” and in September was a judge for the Miss America pageant. His recordings range from classical repertoire to all-star assemblages like his new Christmas-themed album, “Musical Gifts From Joshua Bell and Friends,” with guests including Gloria Estefan, Alison Krauss, and Branford Marsalis.
The Grammy Award-winning, go-to subject of PBS concert films spoke with the Globe by phone in advance of his Nov. 17 Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Symphony Hall.
Q. How do you go about putting together a program like the one you’ll be performing at Symphony Hall?
A. I guess it’s like a chef preparing a tasty menu. It has to have enough meat and potatoes, and enough dessert, and enough variety, and yet somehow the things work together and aren’t totally jarring. Sam [Haywood, pianist] and I have been playing together for several years, and there are pieces we’ve really been wanting to play together for a long time. On this program, the Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 10 is the most profound and my favorite of the sonatas we’ve been wanting to play. We haven’t played it together before, and it’s been several years since I’ve done it.
Q. Is there sometimes a perception that if a piece of music is accessible and popular, it must not be a very profound musical statement?
A. Sometimes there’s a weird, perverse logic that if something is popular then it must not be profound. A good example of that is a piece I’m doing next week, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Each time I look at it I am more and more amazed at how profound and incredible a piece of music it is, and yet it’s probably the most recognizable and popular of all the symphonies. Tchaikovsky is another example. His music and symphonies in particular are often more accessible in some ways, but I think in a weird way they’re sometimes underrated by classical musicians — maybe because they’re popular.
Q. You’ve said that if you hear people clapping at the wrong time in a classical recital, that’s a great thing. What do you mean by that?
A. Actually when you say clapping at the wrong time, in a different era it probably would have been a very appropriate time, but lately we are taught not to clap between movements. There are certain occasions when I’m playing, like the end of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, where at this point I’d say 95 percent of the people clap. Because it’s just so exciting and it feels so right to clap. And I’ve played for some very sophisticated audiences where people are clever enough so that no one claps [at that moment], and it always feels very strange to me.
On the other hand, when a piece ends with a certain atmosphere and the orchestra or the soloist are still holding their bows in the air, and the silence after a piece of music is so important, if people suddenly start clapping on top of that atmosphere it can be very disturbing. But ironically those are usually not the newcomer moments. Those are people who do go to concerts and they want to show off that they know the end of the piece.
Q. I’ve seen classical soloists hushing the audience from onstage. That seems like a strange way to relate to your audience.
A. Awful. There have been times where I’ve played a concerto, and after the first movement people start clapping and the conductor turns around and starts basically “shushing” the audience. As an audience member it’s sort of insulting and just doesn’t make you feel good about what’s going on.
When people clap at a place where it really does seem funny that they’re clapping there, it does make me smile because that means I’ve brought a few people into the concert that haven’t been to a [classical] concert before. That makes me happy and that’s something I’d like to do more of.
Q. In any generation there are a handful of classical musicians who transcend that world and become a familiar presence in popular culture. You’re one of those people. Why do you think that is?
A. It’s a very touchy subject and I should be careful about how I phrase it. The same sort of logic we talked about with popular compositions can apply to artists as well. The perception can be that if they’re doing something in popular culture then they must be one of the cheap, not-great artists. For me, I do make an effort. By even doing a Christmas album like “Musical Gifts,” my hope is that fans of Chick Corea or Gloria Estefan or Placido Domingo will buy an album like this and then decide to check out other stuff. There are people who tell me: ‘I’d never been to a classical concert, but I liked your track with Josh Groban and now I’m a classical music fan.’
Q. Is there one adjective or phrase you’d use to describe the sound of the violin?
A. I don’t have a good answer to that. But for me, a violin is like a human voice. It’s so expressive. Specifically, the soprano voice of the violin is something I just connect with. I’ve never felt myself wanting to be a violist or even to gravitate toward the really dark-sounding violins. I just love the soprano, sweet voice of a violin. That’s the sound I have in my ear.