An Interview with violinist Joshua Bell by Ford A. Thaxton
Edited and Transcribed by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
At age 33, contemporary virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell has achieved two decades of acclaim in a career that began as a child prodigy at the age of 14. Since 1981, Bell has performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras, and began a busy schedule of playing, touring, and recording. In 1998, Bell was asked by composer John Corigliano to perform the virtuoso violin parts for François Girard’s film, THE RED VIOLIN. That score wound up winning an Oscar for best score and Bell performed the theme on the Academy Awards ceremony.
In 2001, James Homer asked Bell to perform the violin parts for his score to Richard Eyre’s IRIS. Soundtrack magazine spoke with Bell last January about his experiences as a performer in the film music world.
When did you get the call about being involved with IRIS? How did that whole process work for you?
It was nothing like my first experience with film, which was THE RED VIOLIN, and in which I was much more deeply involved. With THE RED VIOLIN I was approached by the movie director himself on the very first stages of the moviemaking process and then I was involved on the film for several years after that.
IRIS was pretty much more last-minute, when James Homer was developing the score. I’m not exactly sure how I came up but I was just told that the film would feature the violin prominently in the score and I was asked if I would play the music, so I flew to London and spent a couple of days recording the soundtrack. It was a pretty limited kind of involvement.
Had you known James before this?
No. Obviously, I’ve heard a lot of his music. I like his music a lot and I saw some of the music for IRIS and I thought it was very beautiful and atmospheric; almost Vaughn-Williamsesque, and I thought, “why not do it?”
As a performer for the concert hall, I assume you normally have many, many weeks to rehearse. But in the film world, it’s like, “okay, 1-M-1, go!”
That must have been a little bit of a change.
In this case, actually, I read a lot of it at the recording session, because there was a lot of last-minute stuff thrown in, cues that he added for the violin at the last minute. IRIS featured the instrument more as a voice and as a melody, so it wasn’t that difficult. It was more just getting instructed on what’s happening in the movie and getting the right mood, which is pretty similar to any kind of music making. It wasn’t a huge stretch, but the lack of preparation time was different.
It was “hit the ground running!”
Yeah. I’ve done some things like that too. Wynston Marsalis did an album called ‘The Storyteller Album’ where he wrote a virtuoso violin piece for me. He delivered the music to me on the day of the recording, so I’ve been put into those last minute situations before. I kind of like it, actually!
From a performer’s standpoint, there’s the world of concert/orchestral/classical music, which is a very different world than the performing world as a studio musician for films, and such. Now, you’re a very well known artist at this point and I’ve heard stories about other well-known musicians who are accused of selling-out when they “stoop so low” as to record film music. How do you feel about working in the film music world?
This wasn’t an either I or situation. It wasn’t like I decided I’m going to give up Beethoven and do this! If I were giving up playing Beethoven and Brahms in order to do this for the rest of my life at twice the salary, then I’d understand that kind of attitude. But I like doing everything, and doing something like this is not the heart and soul of what I do, it’s a side thing that I enjoy, and it doesn’t adversely affect anything else that I do. I am aware of that attitude, though, from people who think it’s kind of horrible to do that, but I’m sure there are classical composers who get the same thing when they cross over into the film world, even though Shostakovich and Prokofiev and other great composers wrote music for films. I think it’s a great medium for creativity for composers.
On the soundtrack to IRIS, do you appear on all the tracks?
I don’t appear on all of the tracks. The violin doesn’t grab you by the throat in that score. It’s understated, very beautiful and serene, which is appropriate for the movie. So the violin isn’t on every track but it is featured a lot.
Did you record anything specifically for the album during the sessions or is everything just strictly from the movie soundtrack itself?
Everything is from the movie, although certain cues were left out of the movie in the final stages but were kept into the soundtrack album. There was a lot of nice material that didn’t end up making it into the movie. But, unlike THE RED VIOLIN, James didn’t create any piece on its own that I played outside of the movie soundtrack.
What type of violin, specifically, do you play?
I play a Stradivarius. It’s actually an interesting story. I had a Stradivarius for many years that I recently sold to buy this one, which I just found two months ago. But it’s one of the really great ones, made in 1713. What’s amazing is that when I tell the story about it, it reminds people of THE RED VIOLIN movie, because this violin that I’m playing now is quite famous. It was owned by a famous violinist in the early part of the 20th Century named Huberman. The violin was stolen from him, backstage, at Carnegie Hall right after a concert, and it disappeared for 50 years. It turns out it was stolen by a cafe violinist who played it in cafe’s for 50 years, and he couldn’t tell anybody he had the famous Huberman Stradivarius. Later, in the 1980s, on his deathbed, he told his wife he had this stolen violin, and she turned it in and it became quite famous for having been the missing Strad. In fact, it’s been stolen twice in its history, and it’s very red!
You have a Lo-Jack on it, I presume?
Yeah [laughs]. But it’s just kind of fun to have this violin that’s like right out of the movie.
Speaking of THE RED VIOLIN, were you pleasantly surprised, as I guess we all were, when John Corigliano won the Oscar for that score?
Yeah. I was there at the Academy Awards. That was definitely one of the highlights of my musical life, because I’d been involved for so long and witnessed John spending so much time and care with the score, and feeling that he really deserved to be rewarded in that way, but I really did not expect it. I was so sure it wasn’t going to happen, so when they did call his name it was very, very exciting.
Have you performed the piece from THE RED VIOLIN in concert?
Yes, lots. It’s just part of the repertoire now. In fact, for the 2003-2004 season, John is adding at least two more movements to the chaconne to make it into a concerto, and it will be the Red Violin Concerto. I’ve helped co-commission the piece and I’ll be performing it all around. A lot of the major orchestras banded together and commissioned him to make a real concerto out of it, so it still goes on.
In any of your own recordings, other than these two projects, have you ever recorded any music from films?
Not on recordings. I have performed, in concert, some pieces from John Williams’ SCHINDLER’S LIST and I’ve also made a record of Gershwin with John Williams.
Would you have any interest at some point down the road of doing an album of music from films?
I think I would certainly be interested in doing something like that. It would have to be the right sort of repertoire. It would have to feel viable as a musical offering rather than just kind of a Themes Collection kind of thing.