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Joshua Bell Conjures Ysaÿe in Cincinnati

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 7, 2011 - 5:41:48 PM in news_2011

Joshua Bell

It is singularly appropriate that violinist Joshua Bell will be performing Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata No. 3 (“Ballade”), on his recital at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Memorial Hall. 

Ysaÿe was one of the greatest violinists of his time.  He was a composer and important contributor to the violin repertoire, “one of the gods of the repertoire,” said Bell by conference call last week from New York.

 Ysaÿe also was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  He served from 1918-1922 and made several recordings with the orchestra.

Bell’s recital marks the final concert of the new Constella Festival of Music and Fine Arts.  Also on the program are César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, Mendelssohn’s Violin Sonata in F Major and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op.30, No. 2.

Franck’s Sonata is another link to Ysaÿe, the one which actually caused Bell to program the great Belgian violinist's Sonata for his upcoming U.S. tour.  “The Franck was dedicated (to) and written for Ysaÿe," Bell said.  "I thought it would be fun to put the two next to each other on the second half.”

The Ysaÿe connections go even further.  Bell’s teacher at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington was Josef Gingold, a student of Ysaÿe.  “I actually have a sort of line to him, which I like to claim,” said Bell.

As it happens, Bell still has a home in Bloomington, so he expects to see members of his family at the concert in Cincinnati.  “I am excited to come,” he said.   “I go home to Bloomington, I’d say, four times a year, something like that.  It’s not often enough.  I try to pass through whenever I can.  I also teach a little at the University, so I stop by and do a little bit of teaching throughout the year, and there are the holidays, of course.  I still call it home.”

Cincinnati is the first stop on a recital tour with pianist Sam Haywood that will take them to Tacoma (WA), San Francisco, Asheville (NC), Columbus (GA) and New York.  “My friend Tatiana Berman, who is running the (Constella) series worked around my schedule.  Cincinnati is a place I’ve been wanting to come back.”  (He was last here in May, 2002, as a guest artist with the CSO.)

Bell is one of the world’s best known and most recognizable violinists (except in rush hour traffic, perhaps, as in the infamous Washington Post experiment where he performed Bach at a subway stop in jeans and a baseball cap and was recognized by only one person).  He has conquered all aspects of the violin, having performed for film soundtracks (“The Red Violin”), on crossover CDs with artists like Chris Botti, Sting, Josh Groban and Regina Spektor, for president and Mrs. Obama, and as a guest on “Sesame Street.”  He has been honored with the Avery Fisher Prize, was named Musical America’s 2010 Instrumentalist of the Year, and on Oct. 24 in New York, he received the Paul Newman Award for Services to the Arts and Children.

A Grammy-winner and multiple-Grammy nominee, Bell became artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2004, planning and performing programs with the orchestra for three seasons.  This year he was named music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and will tour with the orchestra in the spring.  “For now,” he said, he will conduct from the leader’s (concertmaster’s) chair.  “They’re very accustomed to doing it.  I direct with my bow, or while I’m playing, and they respond very well to it.  Eventually, I’ll probably put the bow down and do something with the baton, but for now it’s really leading from the violin.”  Next season he will conduct the Academy in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  “It’s going to be a big challenge, figuring out how to give the right signals and how to do it from the violin.  But, you know, 90 percent of the conductor’s job is in the rehearsal, coaching and explaining.  The execution in concert is the final part of it.”

Though he has not studied conducting as such, Bell has “worked with hundreds of conductors over the years, so I’ve been watching and learning throughout.  I’ve had a few more formal lessons with certain conductors.  A lot of them are my friends, so I steal their time to ask advice about certain things and certain repertoire.  It’s constant, continuous learning.”

Eugene Ysaÿe
Speaking of Ysaÿe and the violinist/conductor/composer model, Bell also “aspires to” compose, he said.  “I do write my own cadenzas.  That’s something my teacher Gingold inspired me to do.  Also, people like Ysaÿe and Kreisler (violinist Fritz Kreisler) are my heroes.  I always wanted to try to follow that tradition, which is not done so often anymore.  We’ve sort of become more specialized, and most violinists don’t compose anymore.  In Ysaÿe’s time, every violinist would also be a composer, and that was a wonderful thing.  For me, composing has been pretty much limited to cadenzas and arrangements, which is also a very rewarding part of the creative process.”

On his most recent album, “At Home with Friends,” Bell wrote the arrangement of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” for violin and piano.  Even doing something like that, even though it’s not completely original, it is composing and I love doing it.”

Bell, 43, intends to keep growing as a musician.  “I’ve been doing recitals and playing as soloist with orchestras for many years, and I enjoy that, but I think one has to always feel like you’re growing and discovering.  I think it’s very important not to sort of get stuck doing what you’ve always been doing.”

Asked what his next project might be, Bell replied, “Certainly, directing is the new direction I’m going in.  Then, hopefully, I want to do more composing.  There are always collaborations, people I’d like to work with.  Like ‘Home with Friends,’ I’d like to do a new album with new people.  I just met Elton John for the first time. He said he had some of my CDs.  I was very pleased.  Maybe I can convince him to be on my next one.”

Violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Sam Haywood perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 in Memorial Hall.  Tickets are $35-$75 ($10 for students at the door) at www.constellafestival.org