The Sunday Conversation: Joshua Bell brings classical music to the masses

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell, 42, returns to the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday with a program of Mahler and Bruch. The boyish classical superstar talked about music, friends and adrenalin rushes from his home in New York.

You’ve done a lot of TV, like VH1, and film, and I’m wondering whether you’re consciously trying to bring more young people into the classical music fold.

Yes. It’s hard to say what my main motivation is, but I’m definitely conscious of trying wherever I can to bring young people in, whether it’s doing “Sesame Street” or going into schools. As far as doing TV, I do think there’s a big audience out there that could enjoy classical music, but they don’t know how to find it, and sometimes by doing different things … crossover things probably make up about 5% of what I do. And in those projects with Sting and Josh Groban and people like that, I see a very interesting effect: their fans coming to my classical concerts, people who’ve never been to a classical show at all.

Are you referring also to your recent “At Home With Friends” album?

What that was was a bringing together of all the recent collaborations I’ve done over the years with Edgar Meyer and bluegrass, and Sting and Josh Groban. I’d done things with most of the people on the album before, but I decided to bring them all together onto one duets album as documentation of that.

Where did that start? I read that you enjoyed actually playing at home with friends.

Yeah, it’s something I do do in my own home. I designed [a concert space in] my home in New York and spent about three years building it. So I have occasional musical soirees in my house. It’s sort of an old-fashioned idea. In the 19th century, that was a very common thing. A lot of the great chamber music by Schubert and Mendelssohn was written for those occasions.

You sold your first Stradivarius for $2 million so you could buy your current one for almost $4 million. What’s the difference between a $2-million Stradivarius and a $4-million Stradivarius?

It’s possible I could have found a $1-million instrument I liked better than any of the others. It’s not like because it costs $4 million, it’s going to sound better. What’s the difference between a $40-million Van Gogh and a $60-million Van Gogh? They’re all priceless. But often, especially in the collectors’ market, it’s determined by conditions, the year. The one I bought in the end was from “the golden period,” when he supposedly made his best instruments, and I just fell in love with the sound. It’s a very personal thing.

You’re playing Hollywood Bowl here next. How does that compare to playing Disney Hall?

The first night I played the Hollywood Bowl was 24 years ago this summer. It was 1986, and I was 18. I played a Tchaikovsky concerto. That was an awesome experience, playing in that space for the first time. I’ve probably played there 10 to 15 times since then. I played there last summer. It’s different now, and I love the big screens now which bring people closer to what’s going on on stage. So it’s gotten even better and more fun to go there.

Of course from a musical standpoint, playing at Disney Hall is preferable in so many ways because it’s all acoustic. Disney Hall is a real gem. I love the way the seats are in the round. They actually did it well, which doesn’t always happen with these expensive new concert halls. There’s a time and place for both kinds of experience.

Can you talk about the experiment in the Washington subway a few years ago, when you played violin anonymously and were mostly ignored by commuters?

It was a stunt I fell into as a favor for a journalist friend. I offered to do what he asked just to see what would happen. He wanted to write about art and context. But it wasn’t really an experiment — it didn’t set out to prove anything. You can’t go away with any conclusions.

Speaking of stunts, I know you occasionally do stunts, like the time you went paragliding in Sun Valley before you performed with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony.

I don’t want to portray myself as a daredevil. I’m not at all. I like trying things, I am kind of adventurous and I like thrill seeking. It’s probably why I love going out on stage. It is like going on a roller coaster every other night, that feeling of building up of anxiety and expectation and then the release of tension when you play and it’s over and people applaud for you. It’s almost like a drug that I happen to really, really like. And it’s somewhat addictive. When I go for a month without performing, I feel like I’m really missing that drug.

Your dad, Alan Bell, was a Kinsey sex researcher. Did he ever talk about that?

Sure, he did, plenty, at the dinner table. He didn’t work with Kinsey himself. [Kinsey] was dead by then. But at the Kinsey Institute, he wrote books about homosexuality. As a kid it was a little bit odd to have a parent who was doing those things, but on the other hand, my parents both — my mother was a mental health counselor, my father was a psychologist — were very open people and talked about feelings, maybe a little bit too much. They analyzed every single one of them. But in the sense of being a very open family, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.