Violinist Joshua Bell on rude criticism, his teachers, feeling Jewish, and more

Violinist Joshua Bell on rude criticism, his teachers, feeling Jewish, and more

Joshua Bell with his 1713 Stradivarius. Marc Hom

One thing that violinist Joshua Bell is not is: pretentious. Although he’s one of the most honored violinists in the world, he doesn’t put on airs.

He admits liking jazz, mentioning that he has performed with such artists as Winton Marsalis and Sting. His hobby: watching football on television. He also enjoys Broadway shows, and recently saw “Phantom of the Opera” – “I had a ball” – although his all-time Broadway favorite is “West Side Story.” And he admits that he’s hurt by negative criticism.

Mr. Bell will be performing at Bergen PAC in Englewood at 8 p.m. on March 27, in a program that includes Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, and Grieg. (Reserve tickets at (201) 227-2030 or

Mr. Bell will use his famous Gibson-Huberman violin, made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari, which he bought for just under $4 million in 2001. (It’s worth about $15 million today.) Bronislaw Huberman was a famous violinist who rescued some 1,000 people from Nazi Germany in the 1930s by having them play in the all-Jewish Palestine Symphony in Israel, now called the Israel Philharmonic.

A few years ago, Mr. Bell – whose mother is Jewish and whose father was an Episcopalian priest – said that his Jewishness is “very much a cultural tie. I feel very close to the Jewish side of the family. I grew up with my Jewish cousins, going to all the bar mitzvahs, so I feel very close to that side, and I identify myself as being Jewish.”

I told Mr. Bell about criticism of him I’ve seen on YouTube – that he moves around too much when he plays, and that he’s too good-looking (!). He’s a well-spoken, intelligent gentleman, and he gave frank answers to all the questions I asked.

Warren Boroson: How many concerts do you give in a year?

Joshua Bell: I haven’t added it up, but I think it’s getting close to 150. Which is – a lot! Probably too many, but I love playing and there are so many places I want to go, repertoire I want to play, that I end up trying to fit it all in. But so far I’m still on my feet and enjoying it.

WB: Do you vary the programs?

JB: Oh, yeah. When I do a recital tour like this I tend to keep pretty much the same program, but even within this recital tour I’m also playing concertos with orchestras and doing a lot of different things. It never gets to the point where I feel like I’m getting bored with the repertoire.

WB: When do you have time to practice?

JB: Luckily I don’t have a day job … (laughs) … so I do find time, but it sometimes means in hotel rooms or wherever I can. I learned early on how to make best use of my time. You know, quality is more important than quantity when it comes to practice time. And unfortunately I still need to practice a lot.

You might think that after 40 years of practice you wouldn’t need to practice anymore, but sadly it doesn’t work that way. You still have to keep chugging away and perfecting. I hear that Tiger Woods still gets out on the driving range and hits balls for hours at a time. You’d think he’d know how to do it by now, but that’s not how it works.

WB: How many hours a day do you practice?

JB: It depends, but three to four hours, though there are days when I feel I can take a whole day off. You need to find time for the body to rest because it’s quite physical, what we violinists do….

WB: You’re going to be performing in Englewood at the end of the month. Are you familiar with Bergen County?

JB: Yeah, I’ve played there many times before and I know many people in the community. And I live in New York City, so it will be nice to sleep in my own bed. It’s a wonderful community that really appreciates the arts.

WB: How are you enjoying our winter?

JB: Not so much. Actually I don’t mind the winter as long as I’m not traveling. Unfortunately I’m always getting on planes and coming home, and this winter has been throwing me some curveballs. But I’ve been lucky, and no concerts have been cancelled this year. Last year I had a few.

WB: How familiar are you with famous violinists of the past? Fritz Kreisler? Henri Vieuxtemps?

JB: My idols were really that older generation. Kreisler was one of my idols. He and Heifetz would be the two names I would put out first, but of course there’s Milstein, Elman… I never heard Vieuxtemps play, but he was a teacher of Ysaÿe, who taught my teacher, Josef Gingold.

I was lucky to have a teacher who came from that old generation. Gingold knew Kreisler, he knew Heifetz, he told me stories about his times with them and with Ysaÿe, who was one of the most popular violinists in the 19th century. To have that direct link is pretty special to me.

WB: Among opera singers of the past, there’s been a lot of bitter competition – Luisa Tetrazinni referred to Lily Pons as “The little girl with the little voice.” Is that true of today’s leading violinists?

JB: In a way. It’s somewhat of a small community, we all know each other, and we are friendly. It’s usually a very nice camaraderie.

The only part that makes me sad is if you go on YouTube you see people take sides on who they like, and they may trash one, and say this is the only way to play it. And that kind of spirit I think is unfortunate because there’s room in music to enjoy different interpretations. You see that with regard to opera singers – as if, if you like this one, you supposedly have to hate that other one. I think you can appreciate different interpretations. Art is not a contest. I can even appreciate hearing someone play something in a way that I wouldn’t.

WB: What about criticism of you for moving around a lot when you play – and for being too good-looking?

JB: Too good-looking? (laughs) That’s odd. The moving around, I would probably agree with on some level. I’d like to move less, but I also feel that music is so visceral that it’s very natural, the way I move. I don’t choreograph it – I would accept the criticism more if it looked contrived or pretentious. I hope that people would see that whatever they dislike, at least it’s honest.

Criticism is always hard to take – we musicians are sensitive. It’s always hard when someone says something negative – but you try to learn to just let it roll off and not worry about it.

WB: Thank you for a very enjoyable interview.

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