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The CultureMap Interview

The Matthew Broderick of classical music reveals all: Staying fresh, Miss America judging and more

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Joshua Bell and ASMF
Joshua Bell returns to Houston to headline with the Houston Symphony in Tchaikovsky's famed Violin Concerto in D Major. Photo by Ian Douglas
Joshua Bell portrait
Joshua Bell's new holiday album, Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends, is set to release on Oct. 15. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Joshua Bell and ASMF
Joshua Bell portrait

Life is a never-ending adventure for violin celeb Joshua Bell, who at 45 years old continues to follow a hectic travel and performance itinerary that takes him to all the corners of this convoluted world while raising three boys.

Bell returns to Houston to headline with the Houston Symphony in Tchaikovsky's famed Violin Concerto in D Major. Led by former Houston Symphony music director Lawrence Foster, the program that also includes Mussorgsky's Dance of the Persian Maidens from Khovantchina, Vaughan-Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves and Elga's Enigma Variations is set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall.

CultureMap chatted with the classical music soloist on the phone from his studio in New York to learn how the fetching young man keeps fresh, looking great and playing with genuine artistry.

CultureMap: With such a demanding travel and performance schedule, how do you keep yourself and your music fresh?

Joshua Bell: I don't really know how. But when I walk on stage the experience of being in front of an audience and the feeling of anticipation as I get ready to play great music resets my energy. Traveling from city from city barely keeping my head above water — truthfully, I have no idea how I do it.

My schedule is crazy. I just came back from South America where I played in 11 cities in 12 days. Last month, I was in five continents. The constant travel can be overwhelming. 

I watch NFL football and I get away from music as much as I can to get my mind fresh. 

CM: Do you have any "lucky" routines before you walk on stage?

JB: I think all musicians have a routine. My trick is to keep my routine as boring as possible to keep myself calm, because there's nothing boring about getting on stage — that's both exhilarating and nerve-wrecking. I eat at the right time, get a massage and warm up an-hour-and-a-half before curtain call. Once you get on stage, everything speeds up as the adrenaline gets going.

CM: I think you are the Matthew Broderick of classical music. Having seen you perform for more than 15 years, I can say that you haven't aged one bit. Any beauty secrets you care to divulge?

JB: I am glad you think that (laughs). There's no getting around aging. For me, I really think it comes from the inside: It's about attitude. My mother, who's 78 years old, her vitality comes from being active both physically and intellectually. I guess you can say that I have good genes.

 "I feel like I'm stuck in my 20s. I believe musicians tend to look younger because the job demands that you keep on learning."  

I do feel like I am a kid. I feel like I'm stuck in my 20s. I believe musicians tend to look younger because the job demands that you keep on learning and exploring. You have to look at the world as if it were full of wonder.

CM: As you prepare to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major with the Houston Symphony, can you recall how many times you've played this staple of the repertoire? How has your performance changed over the years?

JB: Of all pieces, this is the one I have played the most, especially as it was part of my summer concert tour. Perhaps 40 times in the last couple of months? It's a piece I've played for more than 30 years, since I was 13 years old. I recorded it twice commercially, once when I was 20 years old and in 2005 with the Berlin Philharmonic. Over my career, the number would have to be in the ballpark of 900 times.

My interpretation surely has evolved over the years. It never ceases to surprise me. It's beautiful. Audiences always respond viscerally to the music. Though I love it, I will probably drop it next year to give it room to breathe.

CM: Do you have an artistic skeleton in your closet? Have you ever been curious about dabbling in other art forms?

JB: I don't think I am talented in painting. I've never taken to the visual arts. Dancing? Forget it, though I love to dance — music is all about dance — I can't dance. I do love theater.

I've thought about acting as I've been involved in movies through music, including with The Red Violin. I was the violin double so I was on the set a lot. That was a lot of fun. But I have enough in music to keep me busy for a few lifetimes.

CM: You served as a judge in the recent Miss America pageant. You asked Miss California whether she thought it was the United States' responsibility to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people. I'm curious: How would you handle that question?

 "In the middle of travel, I've tried to spend a lot of time with my three little boys — they are the biggest thing in my life."

JB: Oh boy. First of all, I should say that I didn't come up with that question. It was given to me. I was just happy that I didn't have to ask the Miley Cyrus twerking thing. That would have been awkward.

As for current affairs, people feel strongly about politics. Music has to be beyond politics. I feel uncomfortable when artists become publicly vocal on international issues. Of course I have my own ideas. This is a difficult question in which none of the answers are good. You lose in either action you take.

The beauty of classical concerts is that all people, no matter their political leanings, can come together and enjoy a respite from the outside world.

CM: Some would say that judging the pageant is odd for a classically trained violinist. Why did you do it?

JB: As part of being a judge, I wanted to engage the Miss America organization in partnership with my musical charity, Education Through Music, which brings education programs to inner city schools. I managed to put them together. Between the two groups, we will be able to raise more money to underwrite more programs.

CM: It's been a year since we spoke last, which was prior to your Society for the Performing Arts recital. What has been your biggest accomplishment since then?

JB: I am a live-in-the-moment kind of person so I've forgotten what happened before that. The past several months have been dedicated to putting together my new holiday album (Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends, set to release Oct. 15) and getting to play music for it with talented folks like Gloria Estefan, Plácido Domingo, Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis. It was a huge undertaking. 

In the middle of travel, I've tried to spend a lot of time with my three little boys — they are the biggest thing in my life.

___

The Houston Symphony presents "Joshua Bell Returns" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Jones Hall. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575.

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