Now, the other Joshua Bell
GREAT BARRINGTON — For 27 consecutive years, violinist Joshua Bell has come to Tanglewood as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Five years ago, he took on the directorship of an orchestra, London's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. In a many-sided career that also includes chamber music and children's programs, he now returns to the Berkshires as a recitalist.
With pianist Alessio Bax, the superstar violinist will take the stage Friday night at 8 in a benefit for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. It's the first stop on a national tour coinciding — not likely by coincidence — with the release of an album featuring him doubling as conductor and soloist with the academy in a program of Brahms.
In general, Bell says, he has become a better musician because the addition of conducting to his mix. Going back to a Beethoven sonata after conducting a Beethoven symphony, for example, "you start to see things that you had not seen before."
Bell describes the Mahaiwe program as a "tasting menu." It opens with a Beethoven sonata — the relatively unfamiliar Opus 12, No. 2. Bell says he chose it because "it's very funny and quirky, and not the kind of Beethoven we think of as shaking his fist at the world."
Because he had been doing a lot of Brahms for the recording, Brahms' early Scherzo in C minor and mature Sonata No. 3 follow on the program. The post-intermission half is French: sonatas by Ysaye and Debussy, winding up with Sarasate's splashy "Carmen" Fantasy.
"I like a concert generally to give the audience a range of experiences and range of emotions," the former wunderkind, now 48, said in a conference-call interview with critics in anticipation of the current tour.
Elsewhere during the current season, you'll find this violinist soloing with major orchestras — including those of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — in the United States, Europe and Asia. He is on President Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities and, in April, took part of the U.S. government's first cultural mission to Cuba.
Then there are the other exploits. Such as: the soundtrack of the film "The Red Violin"; his incognito solo stint in a Washington subway station (hardly anybody recognized him), and a children's book, "The Man with the Violin," based on the subway experiment. Coming up in February is a weeklong residency at Washington's Kennedy Center that will include an evening with something called the Gourmet Symphony.
And what, he was asked during the interview, might a Gourmet Symphony be? Banging pots and pans?
Although he's a foodie, Bell confessed, he didn't know.
The idea is "simmering," his publicist chimed in.
Bon appetit, all.
Bell's enduring popularity as a soloist is attested to by the line of autograph-seekers he continues to attract at Tanglewood. Being a famous soloist was not enough. In 2011, he succeeded Neville Marriner as director of St. Martin in the Fields, a chamber orchestra. Marriner, who died this month at 92, was its founding director, a post he had held for 53 years.
Bearing up gamely under peppering by seven critics' questions, Bell said the invitation to succeed Marriner was not entirely unexpected. He had been guest-conducting the orchestra for about a decade.
"I guess in the back of my mind, since I had done so much work with them, I thought that if they were going to ask someone, I hoped I'd be considered," he recalled. "When I got the call saying the orchestra, the members, had asked for me to be the next music director — yeah, I was certainly very excited. I didn't, and I don't, really think about the idea of filling Sir Neville Marriner's shoes. I don't think in those terms." If only in length of service, "I wouldn't be able to."
On the other hand, he feels a debt to Marriner.
"We were not close, close friends but he was always very kind to me, and especially as I was becoming involved with the academy as they named me music director."
Like Marriner, who was also a violinist, Bell frequently doubles as conductor and soloist. (In the Brahms recording, he and cellist Steven Isserlis are the soloists as he conducts the academy in a gripping performance of the Double Concerto.) He noted that he had even done double duty on tour this year in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which is a day's work for the soloist alone.
Nerves? Not really. To prepare for a performance, he tries to slow himself down. "It's sort of a mind game," he said, "just trying to keep convincing myself that the world's not going to end if something goes wrong." He quickly added: "Basically."
Bell recalls that he met Bax, his pianist, at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland about eight years ago. They were assigned to a chamber music group together and eventually became friends and musical partners. Like Bell, Bax is "a big foodie, which is important when you're traveling."
Because of his interest in education, Bell enjoys doing kids' shows like "Mozart in the Jungle" and "Julie's Greenroom." And, speaking of kids, he has three of his own back in New York, so he now tries to limit his tours to 10 days max, down from three weeks. He sometimes flies home from Europe to visit for as little as two days. Between visits, he says, "thank goodness for Skype."
Who: Violinist Joshua Bell with pianist Alessio Bax
What: Music by Beethoven, Brahms, Ysa e, Debussy, Sarasate
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
When: Friday evening at 8
Tickets: $65-$130; premium seating — $250. Proceeds benefit Mahaiwe year-round arts and education programs
How: 413-528-0100; mahaiwe.org; in person at Mahaiwe box office on site; premium seating — (413) 644-9040 extension 107
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