Q&A: Joshua Bell on the death of Neville Marriner and picking up the baton from a legend

Violinist Joshua Bell tells the story of his 300-year-old Stradivarius made in 1713


In town this week for four dates with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, violinist Joshua Bell had been up since 5 a.m. when we spoke in his suite at a West Hollywood hotel.

He had flown to L.A. and then appeared on “The Tavis Smiley Show.” He has a new album out, “For the Love of Brahms” (“I know, corny title,” he said), with an all-star trio,including pianist Jeremy Denk and cellist Steven Isserlis.

There’s also a “Live from Lincoln Center” special scheduled for Dec. 16 called “Joshua Bell: Seasons of Cuba,” in which he performs with the Chamber Orchestra of Havana. For this edited conversation, Bell, 48, recalled Neville Marriner and discussed why he loves Brahms, his trip to Cuba and the thrill of acting with the Fonz.


What’s special about the Brahms Violin Concerto for you?

If I had to pick one, the Brahms is the greatest of all the concertos. I would say the Brahms has every bit of the grandeur of the Beethoven, but it’s slightly more user-friendly. Somehow it’s more satisfying as a fiddle player. It’s an amazing feeling getting to the end of the Brahms concerto. You feel as if you’ve lived a whole lifetime.

Last spring, you took part in President Obama’s arts and humanities delegation to Cuba. Did you get any pushback?

When I announced I was going to do it, some people put comments on my Facebook page, like, “Are you sure you want to be in any way conciliatory to a regime that’s so terrible?” I totally understand their point. I’m not making a political statement. It’s more a human exchange, which is important.

Since 2011, you’ve been music director of the British chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Its founder, Neville Marriner, who died this month, was also the first music director of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. Did you know him?

Not that well. But he was very gracious and approving when he retired and the ensemble offered me the music directorship. That meant a lot to me. He wasn’t one of these conductors who inflicted a strong personality on the music. One of the great jobs a conductor does is knowing when to let the music happen and not trying to say “me, me, me,” because the greatness is in the music.


You’re a violinist who also became a conductor. Is acting also in your future?

I enjoy that process. I got the bug when I was on the set for “The Red Violin” back in the late ’90s. I’ve done three episodes of “Mozart in the Jungle.” It’s just for fun. Last year, I did a show called “Royal Pains.” I got to do a scene with Henry Winkler. I grew up with him as the Fonz. I did an episode of a new kid’s show for Netflix with Julie Andrews called “Julie’s Greenroom,” which is geared toward bringing art to kids. So I was practicing my lines with Julie Andrews, thinking, “This is freaking awesome.” It’s fun to be part of these other worlds on occasion.

Your Stradivarius violin comes with an extraordinary history, which you explain on the video clip. What’s so special about it in terms of sound production?

It allows you to find inside it the sound you have in your ear. It’s like a painter being given a palette with 1,000 colors instead of 10. Doesn’t mean it’s easier to play or tells you what to paint. In some ways it’s more difficult. They say a Strad plays itself, but it does not at all.

What’s on your bucket list?

Composing more. When I write down cadenzas or help arrange things, I get such satisfaction. I would like to write a violin sonata and feel proud of it. That’s my goal. I’m scared of taking the time and really doing it, because it’s daunting.


Have you ever suffered from stage fright or performance anxiety?

It’s all a mind game, trying to convince yourself that you know what you’re doing. You can do it, and you know you can do it. I battle it every time I walk on stage. It’s not terrible, but it’s still a fight to put myself in the right frame of mind, and then it’s done and I feel great. It’s like a drug, that adrenaline. You fear it, but it’s a kick.

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