Violinist Joshua Bell has followed the lead of symphony orchestra conductors since he turned 7 and made his orchestra debut. But now he's the one waving the baton — or at least waving his violin bow. Bell recently took over the music directorship of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
On his new album, Bell conducts Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies from the chair of the first violinist (concertmaster). He spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about his new role with the orchestra, how he's often wanted to grab the baton out of a conductor's hand, and why there are never enough good recordings of Beethoven's symphonies. Hear the radio version at the audio link on this page, and read excerpts from their conversation below.
MELISSA BLOCK: Let's talk first about the mechanics of conducting from the concertmaster's chair. Describe what you're doing.
I do basically what a conductor does with a baton except I also play along with the orchestra. So I have to juggle the roles of playing the concertmaster; sometimes I drop the violin and wave my arms.
It's different for people who have not seen a symphony conductor conduct from a chair. I feel very connected to the orchestra in a way that a conductor sometimes does not feel. I think it's more visceral. And it gives more responsibility to the players to play like chamber music, which is really what it should be anyway. I really find there are a lot of advantages to leading in this way.
You say you feel connected to the orchestra in a different way because you're seated there within the group.
I'm making a sound along with them, and so when I draw my bow it's something very natural, watching the way one attacks the instrument. They can feel it in a way that's not always so easy when one is waving a stick at an imaginary downbeat. Of course, a great conductor is an amazing thing, and I respect that role as well. But when you are playing along with them, something special happens.
My whole life I've been watching conductors. I was 7 the first time I played with a conductor. Seeing the ones that do it well, it's an amazing thing. And seeing the ones where it doesn't work, I actually have learned quite a lot from them as well.
It's something I'm starting to do more myself, not having the violin in my hand, and I'm feeling more and more comfortable with that. But in the meantime, this recording of the Beethoven symphonies — there aren't many out there, I think, that are led in this way.
What do you think it is about this recording and conducting these symphonies from the chair that makes it special — that you hear a difference?
[In] the feedback I've gotten from people, they're surprised just how visceral and exciting it is, even a little rough at times. You feel like you are right in the middle of the orchestra when you hear it, and that is something I was striving for because when I'm playing with them I feel this amazing excitement and energy that these symphonies certainly should have. The Fourth and Seventh are incredibly heroic, triumphant and energetic pieces. There's so much of the dance element to it as well, and you feel these rhythms in this recording. These players are really on the edge of their seat. There's never a feeling of complacency. Sometimes I play with orchestras and I see a few in the back that are kind of sitting in the back of their chair — and there's nothing more frustrating than that. With this orchestra there's never that feeling. Everyone gives their fullest at all times.
I love the description by Robert Schumann of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants." How would you describe the Fourth, and do you think it's overlooked?
The only problem the Fourth has is its location between the Third and the Fifth, as far as its being overlooked. And it shouldn't be compared. Sometimes people say it's not as great as the Fifth or the Third. It is what it is. And what it is is something incredibly special, and you wouldn't want to change a single note of it.
The Third changed the world with those opening chords; nothing had ever been written like it. The Fourth? I think Beethoven had to write it at that point. He needed to take a break, and in the Fourth he looks back a little bit, although there are always innovations. It's pure joy. It starts out with a mysterious opening, which sort of psyches you out — you think it's going into that dark Beethoven, and it turns into the most glorious, joyful piece that I can think of.
Is there a part of the Fourth Symphony that you especially love to play, when you are in the orchestra conducting from the chair, that just feels fantastic?
The last movement is just an incredible romp that's sort of almost looking back to the fun that Haydn would have with a last movement, although still it's got the mark of Beethoven. The first movement, in the recapitulation, they way it builds, nobody could do it like Beethoven. The way the instruments start layering on top of each other and building, it just bursts into this incredible joy when it recaps.
You've been a soloist for so long — 30 years. Did you always have in the back of your mind, "I'd like to conduct," just like actors will tell you, "I always wanted to direct?"
The term "soloist" — I guess that's what I do much of the time, but I don't think of myself as a soloist. I'm a musician. So that means doing a lot of things. Chamber music has been my great love all my life, and this is just an extension of that.
Certainly there are many times I've wanted to grab the stick out of a conductor's hand and say, "Come on. They need a rhythmic impulse here. Don't tell them to play softer and then make this huge gesture." There are times like that when I think, "I want to give this a try." And so this is a neat chance for me to have my say on these two amazing pieces, which are stories that can be told over and over again, and we really never tire of them.
This is your first recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as music director, with these two symphonies of Beethoven. Did you wonder, "Aren't there enough Beethoven symphony recordings out there?"
I would have to give up my career as a classical musician if I was worried about that. That's what we do. Everything I've recorded in my life, pretty much — except for some of the new things commissioned — they've been done before. You have to have enough confidence in what you're doing that you feel you have something to say, otherwise you shouldn't be doing it. But I guess I'm conceited enough to think that there's something new here to say, without trying to be new. I think that's a mistake if you think, "There are a hundred recordings and I need to be doing something different, so let's just do this extra fast or this extra loud." That's not the way to approach it.
Basically what you are trying to do is say what you think Beethoven wanted to say. It's not me saying it. You want the star to be Beethoven. You want Beethoven to reach the listener.