Rambling About Tanglewood: Joshua Bell, switch-hitter, solos again


LENOX --- Laughing at the comparison, Joshua Bell says his goal is to be "the Cal Ripken of Tanglewood."

The violinist has already exceeded the baseball slugger's record of 21 straight seasons. Tonight's opening Boston Symphony Orchestra concert will mark Bell's 25th consecutive season as a Tanglewood soloist. He'll keep coming back, he says, "as long as they keep inviting me."

To continue the baseball analogy, Bell returns as a switch-hitter. Two years ago, he became music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the renowned London chamber orchestra. He meanwhile continues to make anywhere from 90 to 140 solo appearances a year -- "which is probably more than I should," he says, "but I have too many things that I want to do."

As first at bat, Bell plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the BSO under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, whose time with the BSO also stretches back into the mists. He and Frühbeck are longtime partners. Bell recalls first performing with the Spanish conductor at 19 at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, with many happy returns of the day.

"He has a strength and presence and confidence on the stage that, actually, orchestras always respect," Bell said in a phone interview.

Frühbeck concludes the all-Tchaikovsky program with the Fifth Symphony.

Bell names Tanglewood as one of few places where he likes to perform year after year. Others are the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, the Aspen Festival in Colorado and Indiana University. He feels loyalty to the last two because of his studies there.

"My concert schedule is so varied that I love to have a couple of decent places that I feel give a little bit of a regularity to my life," he said. "So I know every year going to Tanglewood is something I can look forward to as an anchor of the summer. It's a special place."

Now 45 and the father of three boys (a 5-year-old and twin 3-year-olds), the former prodigy has been playing the violin since the age of 4. Reviewers love him. He has awards from all over the place, including Hollywood Bowl and the World Economic Forum. He has performed twice for President Obama. Look for long lines of autograph seekers outside the Shed when he comes to Tanglewood.

"One of the 50 most beautiful people in the world," People magazine opined.

The story is still told of how The Washington Post put him up to playing incognito in a Metro subway station in 2007 to see if anyone would notice. Of 1,097 passersby caught on video, only seven stopped to listen and only one recognized him. He collected $32.17.

Playing solos with other conductors -- some great, some not so great, he recalls -- gave Bell the itch to try conducting himself. Often recorded as a violinist, he makes his recording debut as a conductor in a new Sony disc of the Beethoven Seventh and Fourth symphonies with his London ensemble.

The two symphonies recall pivotal moments in his life. He fell in love with the Seventh as a child when his mother played it over and over on the record player. Later, he became enamored of the Fourth Symphony while watching a video of the great Carlos Kleiber conducting it. Kleiber became a hero.

"It was through him," Bell writes in the album notes, "that I started to form my image of the ideal conductor, a vessel for the music, somehow managing to be a part of the orchestra, yet unmistakably its leader, giving the orchestra direction when necessary but not exaggerating gestures to justify his existence."

To find time, Bell said in the interview, he generally spends six to eight weeks a year with the Academy, leading it on spring and fall tours. Guest conductors take other programs.

"Right now, I'm really using the Academy as the place where I'm learning the repertoire, expanding my repertoire," he says. He hasn't worked his way up to Bruckner and Mahler -- "maybe someday," he says -- but he will step up to Brahms' Fourth Symphony during the coming season.

In classical-period style, he conducts from the concertmaster's chair, and he and the players have developed "a way of communicating that feels very natural." So far, he doesn't have time to do much guest-conducting. But definitely, he says, coming at music from different angles makes him a better soloist and conductor. Example: knowing Beethoven better by going back and forth between the violin concerto and symphonies.

Then there's that vigorous, high-on-the-shoulder playing style of his. It can lead to certain misunderstandings.

"Sometimes the conductors are annoyed that I look like I'm trying to lead more from the soloist position," he says.

He laughs at the irony. The season begins. Batter up.


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