Classical violinist Joshua Bell is, much like his treasured instrument, one of a kind. Not only is he an esteemed performer in all classical circles, but something of a pop culture phenomenon. In his new record, Bell recreates the magic of performing with a room full of talented friends by producing a string of duets as diverse but uniform as the colors of the evening sky.
In At Home With Friends, Bell gathers an impressive group of comrades made over a period of 20 years – beginning with an orchestral debut at age 14 – and performs duets with vocalists like Josh Groban, Sting, Kristen Chenowith and Regina Spektor, as well as musicians like Chris Botti and Edgar Meyer.
Bell gave the News-Telegram a ring to tell us about his new endeavor, and to answer questions about his life as a famed musician. Bell was rehearsing for a recent appearance on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, but where one would imagine a performer to be a bit rushed or nervous, Bell seemed cool and relaxed – a testament to his may years of performing.
At Home with Friends holds a great many types of music ranging from classical to rock and even salsa. In one instance Bell follows a cover of the Beatles’ melancholy masterpiece “Eleanor Rigby” with a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff, but it is no way jarring in listening to the album.
“I did wonder how it would sound all together,” Bell remembers. “I definitely believed in all the pieces individually, and getting the right order on the record was tricky so that it didn’t sound too disjointed, but I was surprised at how things did flow from one to the other. It goes to show that music is music and that there is no reason why you can’t follow ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with Rachmaninoff.”
The violinist revealed that to keep the album sounding coherent, he tried to illuminate the classical nature in each of the pieces, even though some of the tracks did “live in their own world” like the salsa rhythms in “Para Ti” featuring Tiempo Libre in collaboration with sitar player Anoushka Shankar.
“The neat thing is to hear the violin as a common thread through all of these pieces,” he said.
To some violinists, their instrument may be a tool to express their music, but Bell holds a completely different relationship to his instrument: it’s part of his performance, it becomes an extension of himself.
Bell plays the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius exclusively. The Gibson Stradivarius has a colorful history: created by the famed 17th century violin maker Antonio Stradvari and later belonging to famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the violin was stolen twice from Huberman.
The second and final time the instrument was taken from Huberman was during a performance at Carnege Hall in 1936; the thief only revealed the tale of the instrument on his deathbed in the late 1980s.
The Gibson Stradivarius has since come into the possession of Bell, who has become attached to the exceptionally crafted violin.
When asked if he worries about the violin being stolen, Bell divulges how he keeps his cool: “I think of it sort of as my baby,” he said. “A mother is always worried not to lose her baby, but in the end you get used to it and you’re not tearing your hair out worrying that your baby is going to disappear every second.”
Bell has played the $4 million instrument in the grandest music halls across the planet, but the most interesting setting has been a Washington D.C. Metro Station where he posed as a busker for 40 minutes during early morning rush for a 2007 Washington Post article.
The most surreal thing to him was not that only seven people stopped to listen to the virtuoso play, but “how it caught on with the public, the YouTube [exposure], the sort of viral e-mails sent as a subway experiment,” he says. “From all corners of the Earth I’ve heard from people who saw that article. I thought it would be here and gone in a week... but I’m still hearing about it three years later.”
And three years later Bell has gone from classical virtuoso to viral pop culture phenomenon and back with more fame and acclaim under his belt.
When asked which of the tracks from At Home With Friends he considered a favorite, Bell laughed and said he “couldn’t have a favorite, especially considering that all my friends have agreed to be on my album.”
But he did illuminate some stand-out collaborations that came to mind: old friend and double bass player Edgar Meyer, with whom Bell made a Grammy-nominated album, A Short Trip Home, is featured on two tracks; the fresh arrangement and duet of “My Funny Valentine” with Broadway and television star Kristen Chenowith, which they had previously performed together seven years before; and a track with a new friend, indie pop sensation Regina Spektor, called “Left Hand Song.”
Bell describes “Left Hand Song” as a remarkable last-minute recording.
“I’d heard [Spektor] was interested in doing a duet with me just as we were getting ready to go to press with the album,” he recalls. “So we extended the deadline another week and I threw together an arrangement on the spot, really, of one of her songs, working in a violin part. It actually turned out to be one of my favorite things on the album.”
Left Hand Song - Joshua Bell and Regina Spektor
The only complaint when first listening to the album is that the songs were recorded in the studio and not during one of Bell’s at-home musicales.
But, of course, a large gathering of brilliant and famous musical talents is nearly impossible to come by because of scheduling.
“I’ve never actually gotten this many names like that together for an evening,” he laughs. “Even getting everybody together for the record was not that easy, because everybody is so crazy busy and we pulled it all together in six months or so. But it all worked out.”
There were other artists Bell wished he had been able to collaborate with on the record, hinting that he might have to create another duets album in the future. He wished he could have included collaborations with some of his musical “heroes.”
“Let’s just put it this way,” he said. “In the next one I’d love to do something with Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney – if he’ll even speak to me after hearing my version of ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Maybe he’ll like it. I don’t know. I’d like to get in touch and hear what he thinks.”
It’s funny to hear a musician of Bell’s caliber worry about another artist’s opinion, especially after seeing a video of his performance.
Joshua Bell's musical presence is astonishing in recordings – you know it is him even when he's just a featured artist – but to see the man play the Gibson Stradivarius is an experience in itself. The way he wholeheartedly throws himself into each performance is as breathtaking as the sounds emanating from those strings.
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