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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Joshua Bell takes on Tchaikovsky with the ASO

Violinist Joshua Bell will play Tchaikovskys Violin Concerto this weekend with the ASO.
  • Mark Horn
  • Violinist Joshua Bell will play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto this weekend with the ASO.
Music critics can be notoriously harsh, and perhaps none have been harsher than those who first reviewed Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto when it premiered in Vienna in 1881. “Long and pretentious... music that stinks to the ear... odorously Russian... the violin was not so much played as beaten black and blue.” The piece has, ironically, become one of the most popular and beloved in all of the classical repertoire, and Atlantans will have the opportunity to hear one of classical music's most popular and beloved violinists take it on with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Creative Loafing caught up with violinist Joshua Bell to discuss that piece's much-changed reputation, his famously-ignored performance in the DC Metro, and also how he now balances making over 120 concert appearances a year while raising three young sons.

When Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was first played, it got a terrible reception. What do you think it was about that piece that was so new and different that critics and audiences couldn't understand it?
That's a good question actually. There are so many pieces that have that history of being hated the first time they were heard. But it's hard for me to imagine with Tchaikovsky. I understand with Stravinsky: people hated The Rite of Spring because it was so modern-sounding, and they weren't used to those harmonies. With Tchaikovsky it's harder to understand except perhaps it wasn't played very well. It's a very difficult piece. It might have sounded like a big mess. It's the only thing I can think of because it's a beautiful piece and there's so much to like about it. It's so accessible and easy to listen to and also exciting for the audience. I find it the most crowd-pleasing.

Even today Tchaikovsky still has more than his share of detractors. People say his music is too flowery, too frilly, too accessible, too romantic, too popular. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
It drives me crazy when people try to say Tchaikovsky is not on the level of Beethoven or Mozart. It's something that's different: It's Tchaikovsky. It's often said that Romantic composers like Tchaikovsky are not great music, but I don't really understand that. Maybe because some people like to think that because it's popular it can't be profound. But Tchaikovsky is as great as it gets. I think the symphonies are very profound. I think the violin concerto is one of the great pieces for violin.

A piece like that has been recorded brilliantly so many times. What's your relationship to recordings? Do you listen to them to prepare for a performance? Or do you forbid yourself from listening to them?
The violin concerto is a piece I know so well. I've done it since I was 13 years old. For 30 years I've been playing it. I certainly grew up listening to lots of recordings. Jascha Heifetz was my idol and probably the recording I heard most. But now you won't catch me putting on a Tchaikovsky recording at all. I've developed such a strong personal relationship with the piece. At a certain point it becomes your own, and I don't seek other recordings. I like listening to symphonies and other works by Tchaikovsky which can inspire the way I think about the violin concerto, but after a certain point I just don't listen to other recordings. It's been years since I've done that.

A few years ago you participated in a little stunt for the Washington Post in which you played as an anonymous busker in a station of the DC metro so the journalist could see what the effect would be on commuters. Articles tend to come and go, but that one really made a splash, and it still sticks in people's mind and comes up when your name is mentioned. What is your perspective on that piece now?
It seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. It must have because people are still talking about it. For me, I get someone asking me about it just about every day. It made people think, about context, about art, about how they view art, what they pay attention to. The article was in that way very successful in its objective. It wasn't really trying to prove something. But it was successful at getting people to talk. It's been remarkable and surprising. I did it for fun as a favor for a journalist. I thought it would disappear after a week, but it's still being talked about.

Does it ever pop into your head how weird it is that people will pay so much to see you, but then they passed you by when you were playing at a station for free?
It made me think about that special atmosphere that happens when people are there with expectations and ears ready to absorb what you're doing and brains ready to digest what you're giving them. It made me realize that music can't be thrown at someone while they're rushing to work. It is a two-way street. You need a receptive audience. It did make me appreciate that I have a great job, getting to play music for an audience that really listens and claps for you at the end of it.

You're raising a family now. [Bell has three young sons: a 4-year-old and infant twins]. It must be hard to integrate a family life into a busy artistic life. What effect do you think it has on your artistry?
I have three young sons now and that's been amazing. But it makes traveling more difficult because I get more homesick. I try not to be away for more than a couple weeks maximum, whereas in the past I'd be away for up to a month and not even bat an eye because I love traveling. Certainly the experience of being a parent is incredible. All deep emotional experiences—both the positive and the negative ones—they all effect your musicianship and help you become a better musician. But it's not easy. My job is not one where you can live a normal 'Leave it to Beaver' family life. You have to invent another way of doing it. But it's working so far.

Joshua Bell plays Tchaikovsky's beloved Violin Concerto Friday and Saturday, September 30-October 1, at 8 pm, and Sunday, October 2, at 3 pm in Atlanta Symphony Hall. For tickets or more info visit the ASO website.

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